New research introduces a monthly birth control pill.
A person needs to take an oral contraceptive every day, and preferably at the same time of day, for the drug to be effective.
This consistency can be difficult to maintain, and it may make this form of birth control less attractive.
Now, a study appearing in Science Translational Medicine presents a new alternative: a birth control pill that a person only needs to take once a month.
The new, monthly pill releases the common contraceptive drug levonorgestrel gradually over the course of 4 weeks, explain the researchers.
Why the research is important
An unintended pregnancy can be a life changing experience for anyone.
In the developing world, as elsewhere, it can prevent a woman from supporting herself and her family and from pursuing educational opportunities.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) report, 214 million women of reproductive age who wish to prevent pregnancy are not using modern methods of contraception.
Some believe that part of the problem is the inconvenience of daily oral contraceptives. The authors of the new study hope that a monthly pill will prove more appealing.
Co-lead author Ameya Kirtane, Ph.D., of The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, says:
"Coming up with a monthly version of a contraceptive drug could have a tremendous impact on global health. The impact that oral contraceptives can have on human health and gender equality cannot be overstated."
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Also, contraceptives may not be the only type of medication that the new system can deliver.
Co-senior author Prof. Robert Langer, also of MIT, adds, "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 as well as other indications."
The other senior author of the study is Giovanni Traverso, Ph.D., a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, MA. The other lead author is Tiffany Hua, previously a technical associate at MIT.
How the star-shaped pill works
The monthly contraceptive pill has six rigid arms, each of which contains multiple doses of levonorgestrel.
The arms are built of carefully selected polymer materials that take about 4 weeks to break down in the presence of stomach acid.
The polymer arms gradually release the contraceptive into the stomach and bloodstream throughout the month.
At the center of the pill is a rubbery hub that allows the gelatin-coated, star-shaped structure to be folded and slipped into a swallowable capsule.
When stomach acid digests the gelatin, the star unfolds, expanding to a size that allows it to remain in the stomach, without passing into the digestive system until it has delivered its medicine.
The researchers are continuing to experiment with conditions that would cause the arms to break off, including changes in pH or temperature and exposure to certain chemicals.
Testing the new pill in pigs
Tests of this pill have yielded encouraging results — in pigs.
The authors report that the contraceptive released at a steady rate over about 28 days, and that the amount of the drug detectable in the pigs' bloodstreams was roughly the same as that in a human taking daily levonorgestrel pills.
While the level of the drug from a daily tablet fade over 24 hours, the level produced by the new pill remained steady for almost a month.