In a paper published Wednesday, MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital scientists say they have made progress on the development of a contraceptive pill that only needs to be taken once a month.

The gelatin-coated pill, which has only been tested on pigs so far, dissolves in the stomach where it releases a six-armed star-shaped polymer structure that sits in the stomach for at least three weeks slowly releasing synthetic hormones to prevent pregnancy.

Primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers looked for materials that could withstand the acidic conditions of the stomach, and found that two types of polyurethane could work well for the arms and core of the star-shaped pill. Once the capsule reaches the stomach, it expands and lodges in place. The contraceptive hormones, which are loaded in the pill, are then released at a controlled rate over a monthly period.

The capsule is designed to break down after three to four weeks and then exit the body through the digestive tract. Going forward, the researchers plan to refine the technology for human use. Robert Langer, an MIT professor and co-author of the study, said further research is being done to develop the drug for human test subjects, which he hopes will be possible within the next three to five years. “We are very optimistic and confident that we can get this to humans in coming years,” said Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT involved in the study.

Tests conducted on pigs show that the capsule could provide the same effect as taking daily doses. As a result, scientists say it could help prevent unplanned pregnancies caused by error in daily pill usage. “We are hopeful that this work — the first example ever of a month-long pill or capsule to our knowledge — will someday lead to potentially new modalities and options for women’s health,” said Langer.

In the United States, oral contraceptives are the second most popular contraceptive method for women aged between 15 and 49, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They’re also very effective. When taken properly, fewer than one in every hundred women using contraceptives will become pregnant in a year, according to Planned Parenthood. However, the effectiveness rate is closer to 91%, as close to one-third of birth control pill users have reported missing their dose during a menstrual cycle, the CDC says.

Similar drug delivery systems have been tested on animals before by the same team of researchers to deliver anti-malarial drugs and HIV antiretroviral therapy. However, the new study is the first time the method has been used to deliver birth control over such a long period.

Kimberly Scarsi, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Nebraska, who is unaffiliated with the research, said she believed the new pill could help reduce the lack of access to contraceptives. “A once-monthly oral contraceptive would provide a discreet, noninvasive birth control option that could significantly improve medication adherence to give women more control over their health and family planning decisions,” she said.

Sources: CNN 12/5/19; TIME 12/4/19

 

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