Preventing pregnancy could be as easy as putting on earrings every day
With recent studies showing that the pill can cause mental health issues and with so many growing tired of the physical and societal constraints the current options give us, a multitude of alternative methods of contraception are being developed. This includes the almost mythical male contraceptive pill, a contraceptive gel, and a silicone ring that lasts a year. Now, a new method is aiming to re-invent the contraceptive patch that could be as simple as putting on your jewellery. It works by administering the contraceptive hormones through a semipermeable layer on a patch that can be attached to the backs of earrings, which is then absorbed through skin contact.
A contraceptive patch that sticks onto your arm is already available on the market, but this would be the first patch that is small enough to be hidden behind jewellery – your earrings, rings, or watches. Putting on jewellery might be part of your daily routine, and this method seems like it could be a discreet and easy way to protect yourself from pregnancy.
The contraceptive jewellery patch is currently being developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dazed spoke with leading researcher Mark Prausnitz – who has also worked on the contraceptive patch that lasts for six months – to find out everything you need to know about this new method of contraception.
HOW IT WORKS
Mark Prausnitz: The contraceptive hormone that we're using is called levonorgestrel. This is the same contraceptive hormone that is used in the IUD, and it’s also used in some other injectable contraceptives that last for a long time. The hormone itself and the way it prevents pregnancy is not new – what is new is having that hormone delivered in a patch form, making that patch very small and incorporating that patch into jewellery.
WHY IT WORKS BEST WITH EARRINGS
Mark Prausnitz: We liked earrings because many have a back, which is a flat surface that gets pressed against the skin in a discreet matter. Many women wear earrings every day, and one of the problems with having a contraceptive pill is that women sometimes forget to take them at the right time. If you can integrate the administration of the medicine into something you already do every day, then it is more likely that you won't forget.
THE BENEFITS OF CONTRACEPTIVE JEWELLERY
Mark Prausnitz: A characteristic of this method is that is a progestogen only contraceptive. If you take a contraceptive pill, it will probably have progestogen and oestrogen. You take the pill three weeks on and one week off, which would then maintain a menstrual cycle. If you have progestogen only, it is delivering it continuously. For example, an IUD is progestogen only and lasts for years. This progestogen will disrupt the menstrual cycle, which some women like and some women don't like.
Also, when levonorgestrel is administered in an IUD or an implant in the skin, the woman taking it doesn't have to remember anything, because they last for a long time. With these methods, prevention of pregnancy is 99 per cent effective. If someone is taking a pill everyday, then it would also provide 99 per cent protection. But in reality, people forget, and then the pill is only 90 per cent effective. Therefore, the expectation is that we can do better than the pill, because people will be more likely to take the medication when it is part of an earring.
It sounds like it would be useful and that many women would appreciate the help in taking their contraceptive on a reliable basis. We will need to do studies to find out what women really care about, and refining the design further.
“The expectation is that we can do better than the pill, because people will be more likely to take the medication when it is part of an earring” – Mark Prausnitz
THE POTENTIAL ISSUES
Mark Prausnitz: We've made these patches and incorporated them with earrings, but our initial studies have been on rats. There have not been any human clinical trials, so there are still some open questions. We are very optimistic about it being successful because other hormones have been delivered across the skin from conventional patches, just not as jewellery yet. Levonorgestrel has also been used for decades successfully.
WHAT THE TESTS SO FAR HAVE SHOWN
Mark Prausnitz: We showed our ability to deliver the drug at the appropriate rate, and we have not shown any protection of pregnancy– quite frankly, we didn’t feel the need to do that at this stage in the research, because this contraceptive hormone has been used by many millions of people. If you can maintain the concentration of the drug above a certain level, it will provide contraceptive protection. These tests showed that we were able to deliver the drug at the right level to provide contraception.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES SO FAR
Mark Prausnitz: A big challenge is to make the patch extremely small. You may have seen conventional transferal patches – the nicotine patch is probably the most famous one that helps people stop smoking. These are bigger than an earring back, so we needed to make it small enough. That is a challenge we've addressed, but there will be a little more engineering that goes into it before it becomes a final product.
WHERE AND WHEN IT WILL BE AVAILABLE
Mark Prausnitz: Because it is expensive to develop any new pharmaceutical, they are often delivered in countries where you can charge more to recover those costs. It might not be my choice, but in the pharmaceutical industry, it is more likely to be introduced in the more developed, richer countries in the world. I'm not in the business side of this, but my hope would be that very quickly it could be made available across the world.
Given that it has not been in a human clinical trial yet, it will take some time. That would mean at least five years to get through the development process and clinical trials. It won’t be available at a pharmacy immediately as it is still very much in development.
Mark Prausnitz: It is hard for me to project. Pharmaceuticals are partially based on the cost it takes to manufacture but pricing is much more complicated. I think the actual manufacturing cost will be quite low. When it is ultimately sold, the company that sells it will look at what other contraceptives cost and make the pricing competitive with taking a pill every day, for example.
HOW OTHER CONTRACEPTIVE DEVELOPMENTS ARE LEADING THE WAY
Mark Prausnitz: There's another project that we've been involved with, which is actually our main project and the inspiration for this side project. That is a patch involving microneedles – these needles are solid, conical in shape, and less than a millimetre long. They contain the contraceptive hormone levonorgestrel inside a material that is slowly biodegradable. These needles are melted onto a patch, so when you press the patch onto the skin, they enter the skin, and then you can snap them off, and throw the patch away. Now under the surface of the skin is 100 microneedles that, over the course of a month, will slowly release the contraceptive hormone. The idea is that a woman can press a patch to the skin for just a few seconds, snap off the needles, and for the rest of the month have contraceptive protection due to this slow release.
The real advantage to this approach is that it’s long acting, so you don't have to take it every day, and it’s self-administered. Usually the long-acting contraceptives, which last for a month or longer, are normally administered by health care professionals, like the IUD. This method would allow a women to self-administer, but also get the convenience of a long-acting contraceptive.