Birth Control May Protect Against Herpes

Estradiol – a female sex hormone found in oral contraceptives – may be able to protect women from sexually transmitted viral infections (STIs).

Estradiol — a female sex hormone found in oral contraceptives – may be able to protect women from sexually transmitted viral infections (STIs).

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, uncovered the underlying properties of estradiol (present during the menstrual cycle) that allow it to create an antiviral response. Using mice, the team examined its influence on the herpes simplex virus, type 2 (HSV-2). About one out of six people ages 14 to 49 in the United States has genital herpes (type 1 or 2), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and without a cure this is an important area of study.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the first study that has shown how estradiol could be enhancing the immune system to fight again viral infection,” lead researcher Charu Kaushic, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, said in a news release.

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Estradiol-releasing pellets were implanted into female mice without ovaries, as described in PLOS Pathogens. They were then given two rounds of an HSV-2 vaccine and then a high dose of the virus. Compared to the control group that was not immunized, the treated group showed less severe disease symptoms and most of them survived.

The research “will be very important in understanding what type of immunity can protect women from sexually transmitted infections and how we can use this information to develop better vaccines,” Kaushic continued.

The team observed an increase in antiviral activity in vaginal tract that was not seen in other parts of the body. Estradiol primes dendritic cells in the vaginal tract initiated the T-cell immunity.

“If this pathway can be verified in women, then we have laid the foundation to address a number of important public health issues, particularly whether some hormonal contraceptives may be better than others for women who are at higher risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa, where both HIV-1 and HSV-2 infection rates are high,” Kaushic concluded.

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