An assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Engineering is working with a team of researchers to develop new treatments to prevent the spread of HIV to women. Sarah Kieweg, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, recently received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand her research into developing a gel for sexually active women that can boost protection from the virus.
“This microbicidal gel needs to protect all the vaginal surfaces. It needs to be spreading where it needs to go and keeping the drug where it needs to be, so the basics of the research involve examining the fluid mechanics of how that gel will spread around,” Kieweg said. “It’s a very complex problem with a very complex approach, but I really want to improve women’s health, so it’s a worthwhile challenge to tackle.”
Kieweg’s team is using computer modeling and other methods to create an instrument to assist in predicting how the gels will move in an effort to make the microbicidal substance as effective as possible. The gel also is designed to offer protection against more than just HIV.
“In addition to all the other properties of the gel, we’re hoping it has the ability to prevent chlamydia. That feature could lead to boosting HIV prevention as well,” Kieweg said.
Partnering with Kieweg in her research are Kyle Camarda, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering; Scott Hefty, assistant professor of molecular biosciences; Carl Weiner, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at KU Medical Center; and Stevin Gehrke, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. The team’s research is focused in relatively unchartered territory, creating opportunities to produce groundbreaking results.
“The NIH needs more people to work on women’s health research, and there is a very small number of engineers applying our techniques to this area, so it’s really a wide open field,” Kieweg said. “Our team is able to combine our research and utilize an interdisciplinary approach that has really benefited our efforts.”
Kieweg’s research falls in line with one of the key areas of focus for the university and a cornerstone of the educational and research effort at the School of Engineering.
“Health care innovation — whether through new cures, new treatments or through novel means of prevention — has far-reaching advantages for our society. Assistant Professor Kieweg’s research in this area could have significant benefits to women around the world,” said Dean of Engineering Stuart Bell. “This is exciting research, and we look forward to her continued success in this crucial area.”