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A study done by the University of Manitoba and the University of Nairobi suggests Aspirin may help prevent a person from catching HIV, but there's a long way to go yet.

The study, published in the Journal of the International Aids Society, explored whether low, daily doses of Aspirin (ASA) and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) – both common anti-inflammatories – would reduce the number of activated HIV target cells in the genital tract.

“In women that were taking low-dose Aspirin, there was a decrease of 35 per cent of the number of activated HIV target cells that are in the genital tract, so we think that this may be the first step in trying to prove that rather than targeting the virus… by targeting this activated target cell and preventing it from getting to the genital tract, we may have a new mechanism for preventing HIV infection,” says Dr. Keith Fowke, a professor and head of the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the U of M, and one of the authors of the study.

According to Dr. Fowke, the study is derived from more than 30 years of work in Nairobi, in which some sex workers were found to have high exposure to HIV but weren’t getting infected. These women, he says, are characterized to have “very calm, not highly activated” immune systems. He says highly activated immune cells are prime targets for HIV infection.

91 women enrolled in the study, 76 of whom completed the full six weeks. Thirty-nine of them were on a six-week course of HCQ and 37 were given ASA; the drugs were chosen, says Dr. Fowke, because they’re socially acceptable and widely available. According to the research article, those who took HCQ saw a 31 per cent decrease in HIV target cells in the blood, but the proportion of HIV target cells at the genital tract did not significantly decrease.

Despite the 35 per cent drop in activated target HIV cells in the Aspirin-takers, the study says it can’t say if that’s enough to actually have an impact on HIV susceptibility. Dr. Fowke says more work needs to be done, but he believes any reduction in target cells would improve prevention.

“It would never be 100 per cent protective,” he says.

Dr. Fowke says the study was physically done in Nairobi, carried out by U of M and U of Nairobi personnel, as well as local Kenyan physicians and nurses, and PhD students. It received funding through the U of M from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

They’ve already received funding for the next step, which Dr. Fowke says will be a similar study but with women in Kenya at high-risk of contracting HIV instead of low-risk. That will be done early next year. He says large, population-based studies would have to be done over time to determine if reducing HIV target cells in the genital tract will actually lead to reduced HIV rates.