MIT researchers are currently working on a new oral contraceptive: a pill to be taken only once a month that would release hormones throughout the menstrual cycle.
For a long time the contraceptive method preferred by women, the pill has been losing ground in recent years to other devices such as the intrauterine device (IUD). While the scandal associated with third- and fourth-generation pills may have contributed to this, the mental burden this contraceptive method places on women can also be blamed. With one pill to take every day for 21 or 28 days, it is women’s responsibility to avoid pregnancy by remembering to take it.
Soon, however, they may only have to worry about taking the pill once a month. In any case, it’s the promise of a new discovery, made by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, they explain that they are working on a new method of birth control: an oral pill taken only once a month. The latter can remain in the stomach during the menstrual cycle and release hormones that block ovulation.
Hormone release for 29 days
“Our capsule represents a major step forward in providing contraceptives once a month. For many, this is hard to believe. But our preclinical data encourage us in this direction,” says Dr. Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist and medical researcher at Brigham and MIT. “We started our work on the prolonged release of molecules working on treatments for malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. But from the beginning, we discussed the potential impact that prolonged release of molecules could have on family planning. We wanted to help women take control of their own fertility and are pleased to report on our progress toward that goal.”
This new-generation contraceptive comes in the form of a six-armed star-shaped capsule: first folded for ingestion, it expands as soon as it reaches the stomach. It can then release levonorgestrel, an oral contraceptive that blocks ovulation.
The innovation lies in the shape of the capsule: when unfolded in the stomach, it measures about 2 cm in diameter, allowing it to be too large to pass through the digestive system. It is then gradually degraded, from arm to arm, and then evacuated through the body after a maximum of 29 days.
For now, this contraceptive is still being tested: researchers are testing the concentration necessary for the prolonged release of hormones in pigs. Human trials are expected to take place in 2021.