Once-a-month birth control pill? Experiment works in animals

Woman holds contraceptive pill

Woman holds contraceptive pill

Each arm has tiny compartments of varying sizes filled with the drug; their different shapes mean different amounts of area exposed to the stomach environment, and that area determines how quickly the compartment dissolves and releases its contents over a three-week period. Now scientists have figured out how to pack a month's supply into one capsule. Pictured here is the preclinical version tested in a new MIT study.

Langer and Traverso also noted some people might opt for the extended-release pill instead of more invasive options like intrauterine devices, which need to be inserted at the doctor's office. However, their effectiveness depends on being taken every day, and it is estimated that about 9 percent of women taking birth control pills become pregnant each year. In the United States, around 12.6% of women use an oral contraceptive pill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Especially for younger underprivileged women, unintended pregnancies can really impact them economically and socially, and it can also affect their health".

That number would nearly certainly fall if women only had to do not forget to take the pill once a month or so.

Once the capsule reaches the stomach, it dissolves and releases the starfish contraption, which then extends out its six arms, gets lodged in place and slowly delivers hormones.

The testing in pigs shows that the pill can achieve the same concentration of the drug in the bloodstream as taking the daily pill by gradually releasing the drug over time.

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This work offers little justification for the editing and subsequent transfer of human embryos to generate a pregnancy. The scientists believe that the parents of the twins wanted to partake in this experiment for the wrong reasons.

In a paper published today (Dec. 4) in Science Translational Medicine, a team led by Robert Langer, who runs one of the world's largest chemical engineering labs at MIT, and Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, report on a polymer they created to survive in the harsh, acidic environment of the human stomach for about 30 days. Ameya Kirtane, a senior postdoc at MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and Tiffany Hua, a former technical associate at MIT, are the lead authors of the paper.

Then they tested the contraceptive capsules in pigs, which have human-like digestive systems. The device is folded inside an ordinary-sized capsule. Although the researchers initially developed their system to deliver drugs to treat HIV and malaria, they realized it could be adapted to deliver contraception. They made it stronger and turned to long-lasting contraceptive implants for the materials to hold the hormone ingredient and let it gradually seep out.

First, they had to tweak the star-shaped device. After three to four weeks, these linker polymers could be created to break down so that the contraption gets smaller and passes through the stomach and out of the body, Kirtane said.

To be most useful, the capsule should be created to emit three weeks of contraception and then allow for a woman's period, like a month's supply of birth control pills does, Traverso said.

Lyndra Therapeutics, a company founded by Langer, Traverso, and others, recently received a $13 million grant from the Gates Foundation to further develop the monthly contraceptive pill so that it can be tested in humans. Eventually, the team believes, monthly pills built using this technology could provide treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure drugs, Alzheimer's and more, freeing people from having to keep in mind to take daily medication. "We're very committed to getting these technologies to people over the coming years", says Traverso, who said he anticipates human tests may be possible within three to five years.

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