Project GEL promotes HIV research

Published: October 25, 2011

HIV has been one of the main health concerns in society for years, especially in the gay community. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), men who have sexual intercourse with other men, make up for more than half of the nation’s HIV cases. In fact, these victims have represented the largest percentage of persons that have been diagnosed and have died from AIDS. This serious problem is being examined by the nation’s scientific communities and there is an effort being put forth to prevent and possibly cut back on the number of infections.
 
"Eighteen to 30 years old MSM (men who have sex with men) – our target population – have grown up aware of HIV, and knowing that a condom should be used "every time," yet HIV rates continue to increase in this group," said Jonathan Baker, a physician’s assistant who oversees examinations and collects data from patients.
 
Recently, the government has begun funding a study to find a more effective method to prevent HIV, the research has been called Project GEL. It has begun in three locations in the world: Boston, Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh. The University of Pittsburgh is hosting the study and volunteers are coming from all over the city to participate. Rita Labbett, MPH, is the Research Coordinator/recruiter for the Pittsburgh site and also a class of 1994 Point Park University alum.
 
"Project GEL is innovatively designed to find out why many people don’t use condoms each time they have sex, and how we can fix it- in part with a practical HIV-prevention technology called a rectal microbicide. The trial will help to develop a microbicide product for rectal use, and will apply the product to a real life setting. In real life condoms aren’t used every time by everyone; however, a commercial lubricant typically is used. A prevention technology similar to what men are already using for sex (commercial lubricant) is a very practical means to prevent the spread of HIV," Baker said.
 
The study is comprised of three main purposes, the first being to study the sexual health of young men who have sex with men. This includes looking into how common sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are among this group of men.
 
"We offer the volunteers a thorough and state-of-the-art sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening including an oral HIV test and tests for HPV, gonorrhea, syphilis and other possible infections," Labbett said.
 
The second part of the project is to find out how the men feel about using the proposed gel prior to anal sex and whether or not they would actually use it before engaging in sexual activities. Part two of the study relies heavily on behavioral components and feedback from the volunteers.
 
Part three’s purpose is to research the gel itself. The gel is a microbicide which is applied to the inner walls of the rectum prior to anal sex. This portion of the study will look into any possible side effects and will also research how the men feel about using the gel.
 
"It is important to know for those who are new to research; we are all about your comfort and protection. You can do as many parts as you want in Project GEL, provided you are eligible.  Just because you do Part One, doesn’t mean you have to do the other parts. But we hope that you would consider it if you are eligible," Labbett said.
 
Due to the infancy of the project, it is unclear where this study will go. It is possible that one day, this gel will be available in every drug store in the nation, or it could become an over the counter medicine, prescribed by doctors. According to Labbett, the research’s goal is to develop a product that is easily accessible and inexpensive, yet effective.
 
"We would never want cost or accessibility to be a barrier to HIV prevention.  We have seen first-hand how barriers are literally killing millions of people.  We hope are research and similar research breaks down these barriers and makes HIV preventive measures more socially acceptable."
 
Many people that are in the risk group for HIV infections, are young males that, like most young people, believe that nothing bad can happen to them. The fact is, that sort of thinking is dangerous, this disease can effect anyone.

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