Published on Thursday, 17 July 2014 00:00
A new form of contraceptive for women will soon change the game for birth control. In Massachusetts, researchers have developed a contraceptive computer chip that can be implanted under a woman's skin and release a small dose of levonorgestrel every day for 16 years.
The problem with the types of birth control we have now is that sometimes stopping the flurry of activities to put a condom on can kill the mood, or spraying spermicidal foam into a woman's cavity prior to intercourse can be considered quite unsexy, also let us not forget about birth control pills which are very easily forgettable.
Couples can soon look forward to a fuss-free way of dealing with birth control. The daily release of levonorgestrel, which is a hormone that prevents pregnancy, can be stopped at any time by using a wireless remote control.
The project that has been backed by Bill Gates will be submitted for pre-clinical testing in the US next year and will probably be out in the market by 2018.
The chip measures 20mm x 20mm x 7mm and will be "competitively priced", its creators said.
This little device works by storing tiny reservoirs of levonorgestrel within the device, where a small electric charge melts a seal around the hormone and prompts the release of the dose – 30 micrograms – into the woman's body.
The researchers also noted that there are other implantable contraceptive options out there but all require a trip to a clinic and an outpatient procedure in order to be deactivated.
"The ability to turn the device on and off provides a certain convenience factor for those who are planning their family," said Dr Robert Farra from MIT.
The research team however, is facing a couple of challenges with this project. They must completely secure the device so another person can't have access to activating or deactivating it without the patient's knowledge.
"Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact level distance," said Dr Farra.
"Someone across the room cannot re-programme your implant. Then we have secure encryption. That prevents someone from trying to interpret or intervene between the communications."
The same technology being worked on here could potentially be used to administer other drugs.
Simon Karger, head of the surgical and interventional business at Cambridge Consultants, said that implanted technology like this faces a range of challenges and risks.
But he added that overall "the value to the patient of these types of implant can be huge and we foresee a future in which a huge range of conditions are treated through smart implanted systems".
The innovation comes at a time when governments and organizations around the world have agreed to try to bring family planning to around 120 million more women by 2020.
This challenge opens the door to this kind of implant technology being used in areas where access to traditional contraceptives is limited - a bigger priority, argued Gavin Corley, a biomedical engineer.
"That's a humanitarian application as opposed to satisfying a first-world need," he told the BBC.