Nature-inspired lubricating gel might protect from HIV and herpes

Portrait photo of Hongji Yan.

Hongji Yan has recieved a substantial grant for his research on nature inspired gels against HIV and herpes. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

Hongji Yan, a researcher at the Department of Medical Cell Biology, has been awarded a substantial grant from the Horizon Europe funding programme European Innovation Council (EIC) for his research project NatProLub – nature-inspired lubricating gels that could potentially help many vulnerable individuals worldwide.

Nature has always ingeniously created elegant solutions to problems, a principle evident in human evolution over the past millions of years. One such solution is the mucus naturally present in the human body, serving to protect against pathogenic viral infections.

Hongji Yan has focused his research on developing natural mucus-like materials, collaborating with researchers from five European countries and various research disciplines and industry partners. Over a four-year project, they aim to create ground-breaking lubricating gels that mimic the body’s natural protective mucus.

“Currently, there are no vaccines for either HIV or herpes viruses. The current condom-free prophylaxes against HIV have side effects for patients and there are no prophylaxes, besides condoms, against herpes viruses. With the lubricating gels to be developed in NatProLub, we aim to draw inspiration from the natural protection against viral infections with mucus, of which, mucins are the main non-soluble components. These mucins are to be extracted and purified to ultimately create a prophylactic product to protect people.”

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) previously approved a vaginal ring releasing antiviral drugs. Its effectiveness is only 34 per cent, yet it received approval due to the scarcity of similar methods.”

More control for women

However, even though condoms are a good prophylactic method, they have problematic aspects. For instance, only men can use them.

Hongji places a sample in a dish.

The synthetic gels based on mucus from cows, are intended to imitate the body’s natural mucus and prevent infections. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

“The use of condoms can be challenging to control for women in many cases and can often lead to negotiation. Additionally, there is a stigma associated with it in many cultures. An alternative could provide women with more control in these situations. Women also face twice the risk of contracting HIV and herpes during unprotected intercourse. So, especially for young women, an alternative would be very beneficial,” notes Hongji.

For this project, Hongji and the consortium have received funding from the EIC and its Pathfinder program, which is designed to promote multi-disciplinary research and innovations that have a strong focus on translation. NatProLub is one of only three projects in Sweden to receive funding, amounting to approximately SEK 30 million.

“As a junior researcher, receiving this prestigious grant is fantastic and prestigious. However, it also means that I am responsible as the coordinator for the entire project, which involves many more individuals from diverse research areas. This is a new chapter for me as a coordinator in a project recognised and appreciated by the European Union,” says Hongji Yan.

Came back to Uppsala University

Hongji obtained his doctorate in polymer chemistry at Uppsala University’s Department of Chemistry at the Ångström Laboratory, within the Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology. Returning to Uppsala after five years at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology, and Karolinska Institutet, Hongji has become an interdisciplinary researcher. Now his group is situated in the Department of Medical Cell Biology and partnering with the ImmunoPhysiology Laboratory led by Professor Mia Phillipson.

“Mia and I collaborated on an article in 2018, published the following year. Since then, we have stayed in touch, and I have always felt that the ImmunoPhysiology laboratory maintains a supportive environment. Additionally, I received initial funding from the Swedish Research Council shortly before moving to Uppsala University, aligning with the department. We, like the rest of the team, complement each other well with our diverse backgrounds,” says Hongji Yan.

Hongji Yan and Mia Philipsson have a discussion in a lab.

Hongji Yan is a member of Mia Phillipson’s research group and Mia plays an important role in the project. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Mia Phillipson, with her experience, plays several crucial roles in the NatProLub project.

“I contribute an immunological perspective. The products emerging from this project should not disrupt the body’s natural barriers, a crucial aspect. Furthermore, I have experience in translating research into clinical trials. These tests, necessary to conduct In Vivo, require such expertise,” says Mia, building on Hongji’s previous insights.

“As Hongji mentioned, this project demands a multi-disciplinary approach. This is also why Hongji came to Uppsala University – we have broad expertise under one roof.”

Now, as mentioned earlier, the aim is to make gels available that will benefit many. The path is long but appears promising, thanks to the funding through the European Innovation Council (EIC) program.

Correcting nature’s flaws

The introductory statement in this text emphasised nature’s ability to find elegant solutions. To say that these solutions sometimes go awry might be stretching it, but the hydrogels that Hongji and his team are developing are intended to ‘correct’ nature’s ‘failures’.

“Natural mucus can function in both solid and liquid forms. In solid form, it can capture or slow down bacteria or viruses, and in liquid form, it can also remove these pathogens from the body’s epithelial cells. For example, the secretions from the female vaginal tract can act as natural protection against HIV infection. However, during the menstrual cycle, the pH value of the secretions’ changes from acidic to neutral, losing its protective properties. This is an example where we learn from nature but attempt to create a product that improves where nature, so to speak, falters,” explains Hongji Yan.

Two synthetic gels have been developed by extracting mucus from cows, showing the ability to mimic the properties of the natural mucus in the body. It is for these gels that Hongji and his interdisciplinary team have received a Pathfinder grant from the EIC.

“In addition to having lubricating properties, which is important, laboratory tests on cells have shown that they also prevent HIV and herpes infections. These are promising results, although there is still a long way to go before a finished and approved product.”

If you were to dream – when do you think an approved product could be available?

“The lubricating gels need to meet many requirements, such as effectively trapping the viruses. We are trying to enhance the gels’ antiviral function by developing mucus-like lubricating gels, and then modifying them. They must also be safe and not affect the body’s natural defences, as Mia previously mentioned. All of this needs careful testing. But I am still hopeful and confident that we will be able to bring at least one product – hopefully more – to the public,” concludes Hongji Yan.

Robin Widing

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