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Health, including poverty-related diseases

Helping women to help themselves

Background description

Since the first AIDS cases were identified in 1981, HIV/AIDS has become one of the worst pandemics in history. Microbicides are a new and promising preventive tool aimed at stopping HIV from entering the human body. Applied as an intravaginal gel or cream, a successful microbicide would empower women who are not able to negotiate the use of condoms to protect themselves from the HIV infection during sexual intercourse.


EMPRO is a EU-funded research network investigating and developing new microbicide products that prevent HIV infection by blocking the entry of the virus at mucosal sites. These products are applied topically and contain molecules that block the virus’ ability to attach itself to genital mucosal surfaces. EMPRO’s aim is to establish a pipeline of candidate microbicides leading from basic research to early human testing. Newly developed molecules will be screened for inhibition of specific viral proteins or viral receptors. Efficacy will be rigorously tested in vitro, and the most promising compounds will then be further developed. With HIV infection soaring and the absence of a protective vaccine, EMPRO partners say these products are urgently needed, especially by women in developing countries. The consortium consists of 24 partners from Europe and Africa, including academic institutions and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Full project title: European Microbicides Project
Project acronym: EMPRO
EU funding: €11.7 million
Project launch: January 2004
Duration: 60 months
Project coordinator: Professor Charles Kelly, Kings College London
European Commission contact person: Jeanne Gervais

Science in society significance

A variety of circumstances combine to make women more vulnerable than men to HIV infection. First, in biological terms, women undergo long exposure to seminal fluids containing the HIV virus, making them more susceptible to heterosexual transmission. But there are also social factors at play; in many societies, women have little power to persuade their male partners to use condoms. Women are also more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, and may be forced, by economic circumstances, to enter the sex industry. As treatments are not easily affordable, the disease is exacerbated by poverty.

Today, women around the world need new tools for controlling their own sexual health. In this regard, microbicides represent a very promising option. Under the current EU Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Development, the European Commission is funding HIV/AIDS research on new drug treatments, microbicides, and vaccines. If successful, EMPRO could have an enormous impact on preventing the spread of HIV throughout the world.

Expected results/outcomes

Specific EMPRO aims include:

  • Discovery of new potential microbicides;
  • Rigorous laboratory testing of microbicides;
  • T
  • esting of microbicides in human beings.

EMPRO also faces challenges linked to getting the resulting products to those who need them:

  • Products must be affordable;
  • Sufficient quantities must be manufactured;
  • They must remain stable over a range of temperatures and pHs;
  • They must be usable, i.e. convenient and socially acceptable.