Manitoba researchers exploring whether Aspirin can be used to help prevent HIV

A team of University of Manitoba researchers is working to determine whether acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) can help prevent HIV.

Small study found 37 women taking drug daily had drop in HIV target cells: researcher

The study had 37 women take acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) daily, and 39 women took hydroxychloroquine, another common anti-inflammatory drug. (Getty Images/Science Photo Library)

A team of University of Manitoba researchers is working to determine whether Aspirin can be used to help prevent HIV.

"It almost sounds a little like science fiction or science fantasy when you think of it, but there is some solid scientific rationale for it," said Dr. Keith Fowke, head of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the school's Max Rady College of Medicine.

"The main reason is that the main cell that HIV infects is an activated immune cell, and that activated immune cell is what basically happens during the process of inflammation."

Fowke and his team from the university have been studying HIV in Kenya for 30 years.

He's one of the authors of a small, proof-of-concept study looking into the possibility that Aspirin's anti-inflammatory effects could reduce the activated immune cells targeted by HIV, and therefore reduce the risk of HIV infection.

The study, which was published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, looked at 91 women who did not have HIV and were considered at low risk to get it. Thirty-seven of them took acetylsalicylic acid — that is, Aspirin — in low doses daily, and 39 of them did the same with another common anti-inflammatory drug called hydroxychloroquine.

Among the group that took acetylsalicylic acid, researchers found a 35 per cent decrease of target cells in their genital tracts, which is where women are often infected by HIV.

Fowke stresses that the findings are preliminary.

Drug could be 'new tool in the toolbox'

"What we need to do is show that we can observe the same thing, the same effect, in women that are highly exposed to HIV," Fowke said. "And we also need to know if there's a different dose that maybe can do it better."

Even if that happens, Fowke says he doesn't expect the drug will be 100-per-cent effective in preventing HIV infection. Instead, it would function as one option in the HIV-prevention arsenal, and would be combined with other prevention methods including condoms and anti-HIV drugs.

However, Fowke says, the early results are encouraging.

"If we show that it has a real effect, it's already out in communities. It's already cheap. It's already available. It's already used. It doesn't have any stigma that some of the anti-HIV medications have in some communities," he said.

"I think being able to tell people that this is a new tool in the toolbox to fight HIV is something significant and may have an impact in people's lives, for sure."