In Vitro Surfactant Structure-Toxicity Relationships: Implications for Surfactant Use in Sexually Transmitted Infection Prophylaxis and ContraceptionReport as inadecuate

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The need for woman-controlled, cheap, safe, effective, easy-to-use and easy-to-store topical applications for prophylaxis against sexually transmitted infections STIs makes surfactant-containing formulations an interesting option that requires a more fundamental knowledge concerning surfactant toxicology and structure-activity relationships.

Methodology-Principal Findings

We report in vitro effects of surfactant concentration, exposure time and structure on the viability of mammalian cell types typically encountered in the vagina, namely, fully polarized and confluent epithelial cells, confluent but non-polarized epithelial-like cells, dendritic cells, and human sperm. Representatives of the different families of commercially available surfactants – nonionic Triton X-100 and monolaurin, zwitterionic DDPS, anionic SDS, and cationic CnTAB n = 10 to 16, C12PB, and C12BZK – were examined. Triton X-100, monolaurin, DDPS and SDS were toxic to all cell types at concentrations around their critical micelle concentration CMC suggesting a non-selective mode of action involving cell membrane destabilization and-or destruction. All cationic surfactants were toxic at concentrations far below their CMC and showed significant differences in their toxicity toward polarized as compared with non-polarized cells. Their toxicity was also dependent on the chemical nature of the polar head group. Our results suggest an intracellular locus of action for cationic surfactants and show that their structure-activity relationships could be profitably exploited for STI prophylaxis in vaginal gel formulations. The therapeutic indices comparing polarized epithelial cell toxicity to sperm toxicity for all surfactants examined, except C12PB and C12BZK, does not justify their use as contraceptive agents. C12PB and C12BZK are shown to have a narrow therapeutic index recommending caution in their use in contraceptive formulations.


Our results contribute to understanding the mechanisms involved in surfactant toxicity, have a predictive value with regard to their safety, and may be used to design more effective and less harmful surfactants for use in topical applications for STI prophylaxis.

Author: Ângela S. Inácio, Katia A. Mesquita , Marta Baptista , João Ramalho-Santos, Winchil L. C. Vaz, Otília V. Vieira



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