Could either (or both) of two commonly-used natural compounds—compounds that most people already consume frequently and safely—work better for preventing HPV infections than the Gardasil vaccination?
The short answer is that scientists don’t quite know yet, but things look extremely promising.
The Gardasil vaccine protects the body from the two strains of HPV (human papilloma virus) that currently cause approximately 70 percent of cervical cancer and the two that cause genital warts. That leaves more than 100 strains of HPV merrily making whoopee. Yikes!
And although many suspected side effects of the Gardasil vaccine, including autoimmune disorders, have been reported, one of the scariest things about it is the potential for replacement diseases. These can develop when unaffected strains of any pathogen rush to fill the void, and it’s exactly what happened with Prevnar. The pneumococcal vaccine had to be reformulated, and will doubtless have to be reformulated again and again as strains like drug-resistant 16A “unexpectedly” become even stronger.
In the case of Gardasil, because many people have lifelong exposure to HPV, multiple booster or reformulated shots seem likely—not such a good thing for the girls whose reaction to Gardasil increases with each of the three shots. Clearly anything that would reliably block ALL strains of HPV would be a vast improvement.
Glycerol monolaurate (GML) recently made headlines when researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered that a vaginally-applied gel containing the naturally occurring compound protected monkeys from becoming infected with HIV.
GML is already widely used as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent in food and cosmetics, and it is extremely cheap. If the discovery pans out, cheers will be heard around the world. It would have the potential to save millions of lives.
And the compound would very likely protect against other sexually transmitted infections, too—including all strains of the dread HPV. It has already been shown, at least in vitro, to inhibit growth of nearly all sexually transmitted diseases as well as other causes of vaginal infections, yet it doesn’t affect normal bacteria. Because it is so cheap and could probably be sold over-the-counter, it could rapidly become very widely used.
Research is continuing.
Scientists have been zeroing in on carageenan for a while. Although it’s derived from red seaweed, even the most anti-health food zealot has probably consumed it many times as a thickener in their ice cream, beer or toothpaste
Drs. Douglas Lowy and John Schiller, senior research scientists at NIH's National Cancer Institute, are currently not only working on an HPV shot to be used in developing countries (where the benefits almost certainly outweigh the risks) but also on formulating a preventative ointment, on the principle that since shots are expensive both to buy and to administer, they should look for a simpler approach.
In July 2007 the scientists reported that they had found that a lubricant containing carrageenan was able to very successfully block HPV infection in mice. They’re now organizing a clinical trial to find out whether it will work as effectively in humans.
Interestingly, their study also threw up the possibility that over-the-counter vaginal contraceptives containing the spermicide nonoxynol-9 (N-9) could actually substantially raise the risk for genital HPV infection in women.
A note of caution: As a food additive, carrageenan is suspected of playing a role in intestinal inflammation and possibly inflammatory bowel disease. Also, South African trials of Carraguard, a microbicide containing carrageenan, found it could be safely applied on a daily basis but was ineffective against HIV.
Bottom line: Some personal lubricants already contain carrageenan, so although it would be unwise to rely on them as an HPV preventative at this point, using one liberally (remembering that HPV is spread skin-to-skin) is probably not going to do you any harm and could well have a protective effect. Choose carefully to avoid potential clashes with spermicides etc.