Once-a-Month Contraceptive Pill to Give Women More Control Over Their Fertility
Wed, April 14, 2021

Once-a-Month Contraceptive Pill to Give Women More Control Over Their Fertility

Women may soon have the option to take birth control pills only once a month as opposed to the current form of pills that are taken every day / Photo by: Africa Studio via Shutterstock

 

Women may soon have the option to take birth control pills only once a month as opposed to the current form of pills that are taken every day. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have reportedly developed a new contraceptive pill that only needs to be taken once a month to help reduce unwanted pregnancies for women who forget to take their daily dose.

The star-shaped capsule sits in the stomach for at least three weeks and may add to the existing range of women's contraceptive options. Researchers also believe the approach used in testing the pill may be used in other applications in the future.

 

A Major Advancement

About 1.1 billion women of reproductive age (15-49 years) have a need for family planning. Among them, 842 million (44%) say they use modern contraception methods such as sterilization and birth control while 80 million (4%) say they use traditional methods like abstinence and withdrawal, according to the UN 2019 contraceptive method report.

Birth control pills are among the most popular forms of contraceptives with 151 million worldwide using it. But the pills' efficacy relies on the everyday intake of the user. The Standard Media, a Kenya-based news site, reports that about 1 in 11 women who take birth control pills are likely to get pregnant each year due to missed doses.

The new MIT-developed pill may address this issue and could have a "significant impact" on the health of women and their families, notably those in developing countries.

"Our capsule represents a major advancement toward providing women with a once-a-month contraceptive," said Giovanni Traverso, a co-senior author of the study. "For many, this may be hard to believe. But our preclinical data is encouraging us along that road."

Traverso added that they are pleased to report their progress towards empowering women with respect to fertility control. Their once-a-month birth control pill has only been tested on pigs but is underway to bring the pill closer to human trials. The study on pigs found that the star-shaped pill could release the embedded contraceptive drug at a constant rate for up to four weeks.

Drug concentration found in the swines' bloodstream was similar to the amount after ingesting daily levonorgestrel tablets. The capsules maintained these levels for up to a month, compared to that of tablets that could only last for a day.

Birth control pills are among the most popular forms of contraceptives with 151 million worldwide using it. But the pills' efficacy relies on the everyday intake of the user / Photo by: chaipanya via Shutterstock

 

Long-Term Delivery

The research, mostly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is based on star-shaped drug delivery systems that the MIT team previously developed. Earlier studies had this system loaded with drugs to treat malaria and HIV drugs that currently have to be taken every day. 

But the funding from the Gates' foundation urged the team to adapt the capsule to develop long-lasting contraceptive drugs. Using the star-shaped drug delivery systems, the contraceptive can stay in the digestive tracts from days to weeks after being swallowed.

The delivery systems are enclosed in gelatin capsules that dissolve once they reach the stomach, allowing the pill to slowly release its payload as the folded arms of the star slowly expand, the researchers explain in a press release.

Making the new contraceptive last for three to four weeks required incorporating stronger materials than the ones used in earlier versions, which the researchers say could survive in severe environments of the stomach for up to two weeks.

Soaking the materials in simulated gastric fluid led the scientists to discover two types of polyurethane—a plastic material that can be tailored to be either rigid or flexible—that worked best for the arms and central core of the pill.

The researchers found that they can control the rate at which the contraceptive drug—levonorgestrel—is released by changing the concentrations of the polymers they mixed with the drug after loading the pill's arms. Upon reaching the stomach, the capsule expands and becomes lodged in place.

Changing People’s Experience

The clinical trials for humans are still underway, but the researchers say human use of the drug would require designing it to break down after three or four weeks and then be expelled through the digestive tract. Several possible ways to trigger the arms to break off are currently being tested, including changes in the pH levels, temperatures, or exposure to certain chemicals.

Earlier studies suggest people are more likely to remember to take their medication if the prescription is only once a week or month instead of every day. Traverso said the development of these methods aims to change people's experience with medications by making it easier with more infrequent dosing in the first once-a-month, orally delivered drug system.

"We're very committed to getting these technologies to people over the coming years," the co-author said.

This development also has a great impact on global health, considering that the lack of access to contraceptives is a global health issue that adds to more and more unwanted pregnancy deaths each year.

"A once-monthly oral contraceptive would provide a discreet, noninvasive birth control option that could significantly improve medication adherence to give women more control over their health and family planning decisions," said Kimberly Scarsi, an associate professor of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who was not involved in the research.