A new gel to protect against HIV and improve reproductive health

Dr Peter Mwethera showcasing his innovation

Over 20 million people in East and Southern Africa live with HIV - over half of the total number of people living with HIV in the world (UNAIDS Data, 2019). A new medical gel designed to protect against HIV infection is about to undergo human clinical trials. If successful, the gel could benefit millions of people across Africa.

UniPron works by lowering and stabilising vaginal pH at levels that are too acidic for HIV to survive. Dr Peter Mwethera has already commercialised two by-products of the gel. Smugel gel addresses vaginal dryness and reduces pain during sex. It is used to safely deliver babies and is particularly beneficial for women who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) - a cultural practice which affects 27% of women in Kenya and causes recurrent infections, chronic pain, infertility and childbirth complications. Smuscan gel allows the monitoring of a baby in the womb.

Kenya currently imports 70% of its medical supplies, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to import medicines from abroad. This is the first time these products have been developed and manufactured in the country and the gels are half of the cost of competing products.

Having received support through the Leaders in Innovation Fellowships programme, Dr Mwethera and his team are hoping to commercialise UniPron and scale up Smugel and Smuscan into other countries in Africa. This will enable them to make the products freely available to women in areas where access to modern family planning methods is a challenge and the prevalence of FGM is very high.

This project has demonstrated that scientists and medical researchers can convert their knowledge into products and services. It has helped to raise awareness of reproductive health issues - often seen as a taboo subject - and has the potential to have a huge impact in preventing life-limiting HIV.

Dr Peter Mwethera, Institute of Primate Research

Development and commercialisation of medical products, UniPron (a gel aimed at preventing both HIV/AIDS and pregnancy), Smugel and Smuscan

Project leads: Dr Peter Mwethera, Institute of Primate Research, Kenya

Delivery partners: Royal Academy of Engineering, UK and the Kenya National Innovation Agency, Kenya

SDG 3 icon