Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

New Ex Vivo Research Has a Potential for Solutions in Sexually Transmitted Diseases

By Jennifer ZahnPublished April 25, 2014

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The University of Texas Medical Branch has been conducting studies about ex vivo growth of vaginal cells and their relationship with 'good' and 'bad' bacteria. The understanding of the relationship between bacterial colonies and the cells has shown positive results to a lead in prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, yet further analysis is still occurring in order to confirm these successes.
By Jennifer Zahn, 04/25/2014



Recently, researchers have increasingly developed ways to externally engineer vaginal skin cells in laboratories and analyze their process of development. When examining the growth outside of the body, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch have the advantage to view interactions between ‘good' and ‘bad' bacteria with the vaginal cells. Previously, bacterial communities have never been successfully grown outside of the body; therefore, increasing access to the relationship can result in various benefits. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has been using this methodology to create laboratory-grown vaginal organs, in order to transplant women with a rare genetic condition that results in underdeveloped or absent uteruses and vaginas. However, the University of Texas Medical Branch has discovered a potential success in understanding sexually transmitted diseases by examining the unique relationship that vaginal cells have with bacterial colonies.

 A research group, led by Richard Pyles at UTMB, noticed that certain bacterial communities alter the way HIV infects and replicates within the human vagina. Through their external model, the research team will be able to carefully assess the complex community of bacteria in order to identify the species that weaken the defenses against HIV. Aside from analyzing HIV relations, the external model can also serve as an opportunity to study the vaginal changes that occur with different prescription medications and contraceptives, which used to be almost impossible to test in clinical trials, due to ethical complications and potential risks.

In current studies conducted by the UTMB team, a bacterial community, which has been linked to a symptomatic condition called bacterial vaginosis, is proven to substantially reduce antiviral activity of one of the leading anti-HIV medicines. Yet, when the vaginal surfaces contain healthy bacteria and are treated with antiviral medication, there was significantly less HIV than the vaginal surfaces without bacteria and antiviral treatment. The successes of these studies prove that researchers and scientists are able to examine more closely sexual and reproductive diseases and conditions without the ethical complications of clinical trials. The external studies of the vaginal environment appear to be a tremendous value in the study of sexually transmitted infections and could even lead to possible solutions to the most problematic sexual and reproductive infections and disease. These studies will continue to grow in potential, as more researchers are able to master the practice. The successes behind these techniques do not only have the potential to be revolutionary to understand HIV and reproductive issues, but also other organs and diseases in the body as these research techniques are understood more extensively.