Women's Health Research Overview

NIAID conducts and supports research to prevent, diagnose, and treat infectious and immunological diseases that affect the health of women and girls.


NIAID extensive research on HIV/AIDS has contributed to the following advances:

  • A microbicide containing an antiretroviral drug is effective in reducing a woman’s risk of becoming infected with HIV during sex and preventing genital herpes infections.
  • An antiretroviral-based, vaginally formulated topical microbicide may protect against rectal transmission of HIV
  • Infection with herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) may increase the risk of HIV infection.
  • Giving daily nevirapine, an antiretroviral drug, to breastfed infants through 6 weeks of age can decrease mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
  • Levels of protease inhibitors, a type of antiretroviral (ARV), in hair are the strongest independent predictor of successful suppression of HIV. Testing small samples of hair is a non-invasive method for measuring ARV exposure and may prove useful in resource-poor settings.
  • Optical coherence tomography, a type of high-resolution imaging, is a sensitive and accurate method to assess subclinical effects of microbicides on cervical and vaginal mucosa.

NIAID HIV/AIDS research includes ongoing projects such as the following:

  • Women’s Interagency HIV Study, the largest observational study of 2,000 HIV-infected women to investigate factors like how AIDS develops, the effectiveness of therapy and treatment, drug resistance, co-infections, the influence of hormones and aging, and more
  • Women’s HIV SeroIncidence Study, an observational study of women at high risk for HIV acquisition in the United States to evaluate risk factors such as alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, and mental health status
  • International Maternal Pediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Group, sponsored by NIAID and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, dedicated to significantly decreasing the mortality and morbidity associated with HIV disease in children, adolescents, and pregnant women
  • Centers for AIDS Research, a National Institutes of Health program to enhance and coordinate quality AIDS research projects
  • Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic, part of the Microbicide Trials Network, to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of two ARV-based approaches for preventing sexual transmission of HIV in women as well as determine which of these women are more likely to follow: applying vaginal gel daily or taking an ARV tablet once a day
  • Promoting Maternal-Infant Survival Everywhere, a large, multinational clinical trial in as many as 18 countries to determine how best to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from infected pregnant women to their babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding while preserving the health of these children and their mothers
  • Research studies on the following
    • Impact of antiretroviral therapy and highly active antiretroviral therapy on HIV-infected women, as well as gender differences in responses to these treatments
    • Longitudinal studies of women at high risk for HIV infection
    • Older populations of HIV-infected women
    • Co-infections and their impact on HIV disease progression
    • Complications and sides effects of a vaccine against human papillomavirus in HIV-infected women
    • Immunology of the female genital tract
    • Topical microbicides
    • Rectal microbicides
    • Safe treatments for HIV-positive women during pregnancy and breastfeeding
    • Strategies to minimize viral resistance to ARV therapy
    • Various approaches to preventing mother-to-child transmission

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

NIAID supports research to develop more effective prevention and treatment approaches to controlling STDs. NIAID has contributed to advances such as these:

  • Two monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) drugs were able to prevent HSV infection of cells, identifying a novel therapeutic target for herpesvirus infections
  • A method for creating long-term cultures of cells infected with non-oncogenic human papillomaviruses (HPV), which are usually short-lived in cell culture
  • Improved mouse model of chlamydia
  • Discovery of a strong association of Mycoplasma genitalium, an organism that causes STDs, and cervicitis
  • Decoding the genome of the parasite that causes trichomoniasis, revealing potential clues as to why the parasite has exhibited drug resistance and suggesting possible pathways for new treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines
  • Removing an extra piece of DNA, called a plasmid, in a mouse model of chlamydia infection made the bacteria causing the infection less virulent and kept it from affecting the reproductive tract, suggesting a possible vaccine strategy against human disease

Ongoing research on STDs includes the following:

  • A5240 study evaluating the safety and tolerability of an HPV vaccine in HIV-infected women, as well as a similar study for HIV-infected girls
  • Search for safe and effective vaccines, topical microbicides, therapeutics, and strategies for preventing and treating STDs and resulting conditions
  • Studies on the impact of STDs on various populations
  • Development of better diagnostic tests
  • Clinical trials for the prevention of genital herpes
  • Development of cost-effective methods of screening for chlamydia
  • Development of a vaccine for chlamydia

Autoimmune Diseases

NIAID supports investigations of immunology and immune-mediated diseases and their effect on women’s health. The goal of this research is to increase the health and well-being of women by developing new methods to prevent and treat autoimmune diseases, enhance graft survival in women, and prevent the immunologic causes of infertility. NIAID research has resulted in advances such as the following:

  • Immune mechanisms that help to control cerebral malaria are more susceptible to lupus, perhaps explaining the prevalence of lupus among women of African descent.
  • Autoantibodies to NMDAP, a lupus receptor protein present on brain neurons, are transported from mothers with lupus through the fetal circulation to the fetal brain, a possible explanation for why children of mothers with lupus have higher rates of learning disorders
  • Identification of a specific species of intestinal bacteria, segmented filamentous bacteria, that may induce arthritis
  • A clear correlation between levels of immune system-signaling proteins, cytokines and chemokines, and the time to onset of disease in blood samples from at-risk individuals who subsequently developed RA
  • Describing another set of regulatory T cells that control the generation of autoantibodies, which, if not properly stimulated, can contribute to diseases like lupus and other rheumatic diseases
  • Discovery of how the Food and Drug Administration-approved Copaxone works to reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis, offering insight that may lead to the development of new and more effective forms of the drug
  • Identification of a novel protein, called AHR, which may be a target for therapeutic drugs for multiple sclerosis
  • Identification of a new target for therapies against autoimmune diseases like lupus: two proteins which, when absent from human B cells, made B cells less tolerant of their own proteins and thus exacerbated autoimmune disease
  • A fetus lacks a certain set a proteins, called major histocompatibility class I proteins, which prohibits a mother’s immune system from identifying the fetus as foreign and attacking it, findings which can provide insight on failed pregnancies as well as organ transplantation and autoimmune diseases

Ongoing research includes the following:

  • Identification of several genes associated with inherited risk for developing multiple sclerosis
  • Design of therapeutic interventions against lupus
  • A therapy that can replace malfunctioning immune systems in scleroderma patients with immature immune cells that develop into healthy immune systems: preliminary results show improved overall function and general stability of organ function over a period of approximately four years
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