Condoms and oral contraceptives are fairly effective methods of birth control and STD protection, but there’s one inconvenient problem: you have to remember to use them. Neither are appropriate or preferred for all situations, so scientists are developing a space age alternative for women that could be more desirable and require less effort.
Researchers at the University of Washington have created an electrically-spun fabric that’s capable of delivering contraception and preventing HIV before completely dissolving inside the body. The UW scientists were recently awarded an almost $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pursue the technology.
To create this amazing, potentially life-saving material, the researchers first dissolved polymers approved by the Food and Drug Administration and antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV to create a gooey solution. Using a syringe, the solution passes through an electric field where it stretches to create thin fibers measuring 100 to several thousand nanometers that whip through the air and eventually stick to a collecting plate (one nanometer is about one 25-millionth of an inch). The final material is a stretchy fabric that can physically block sperm or release chemical contraceptives and antivirals.
One of the fabrics they’re experimenting with dissolves in minutes, potentially offering users spontaneous yet discrete protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Another dissolves over the course of several days, providing an option for sustained delivery of contraception and HIV protection.
“Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy,” said study co-author and assistant professor of bioengineering, Kim Woodrow. “We have the drugs to do that. It’s really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent, and allows a woman to want to use it.”