Scientists at the Monash Institute of Medical Research announced last week that they had discovered a link between a naturally-occurring protein in the female reproductive tract and protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The protein, dubbed interferon epsilon (IFNe), was found to guard women from contracting STIs including chlamydia and herpes simplex virus, with implications for protection against HIV and human papillomavirus. Additionally, it could have clinical potential in helping determine women’s susceptibility to contracting STIs or other inflammatory diseases.
According to team leader Prof. Paul Hertzog, IFNe levels vary during the menstrual cycle, and when a woman becomes pregnant or enters menopause, production of the protein shuts down. When IFNe levels decrease, a woman is more susceptible to contracting an STI.
“One way this protein is unusual is because of the way it’s produced,” said Hertzog.
“Most proteins protecting us against infection are produced only after we’re exposed to a virus or bacteria but this protein is produced normally and is instead regulated by hormones so its levels change during the [menstrual] cycle.”
25% of teens in the United States will contract an STI every year, according to the American Social Health Organization. By the age of 25, half of all sexually active young adults will get an STI. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention adds that women aged 15 to 24 had the highest rates of new chlamydia infection, with this age group accounting for half of all new STIs.
In learning how INFe works, Hertzog believes scientists could develop vaccines that stimulate immune response. He also hopes that other illnesses — such as reproductive system diseases like endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease, but also cancer — may be treated similarly.
However, this discovery does not mean that women should try to “time” sexual practices with their heightened INFe levels. All sexual activity should be practiced as safely as possible.