Scientists are closer to developing a birth control patch that could last for 6 months with no doctor's visit required

Christopher Moore, Georgia TechRegents Professor Mark Prausnitz holds an experimental microneedle contraceptive skin patch.
  • A team of scientists is developing a new birth control patch that could someday provide contraception for six months at a time, NBC News reported.
  • The patch was recently tested in rats, and the researchers are now working on a version for humans.
  • The patch is applied for several seconds and then removed, leaving microneedles under the skin’s surface that dissolve and slowly release the birth control hormone levonorgestrel.
  • If it’s approved for human use, it could offer women long-lasting birth control without a doctor’s visit.

A team of scientists has created a new type of microneedle birth control patch that could someday offer convenient contraception without a doctor’s visit, NBC News reported Tuesday.

The patch is applied and then removed after several seconds, leaving microneedles under the skin’s surface. The needles then dissolve over time and slowly release the birth control drug levonorgestrel.

This microneedle technology has previously been studied as a way to administer medicines and vaccines, Dr. Mark Prausnitz, a regents professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-author of the paper, explained to INSIDER. But this application of the technology is unique.

“What’s new here is that, first of all, there’s a contraceptive being incorporated, but second of all, the needles don’t dissolve right away. They slowly biodegrade over the course of more than a month, slowly releasing the drug over that extended period of time,” Prausnitz said.

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For a study published Monday in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, Prausnitz and his team tested the patch in rats.

The rat experiment didn’t test whether the patch could prevent pregnancy. Instead, it looked at levels of levonorgestrel in the rats’ blood.

The researchers found that, after the patch was used, the amount of the hormone in the rats’ blood stayed “above human therapeutic level” for at least one month.

“The goal was to show that we could enable the concentration of the levonorgestrel to stay above levels that are known to cause contraception in humans,” Prausnitz said in a Georgia Tech statement about the research.

The researchers are now developing a patch to test in humans

Birth control patch studyChristopher Moore, Georgia TechAn experimental microneedle patch is shown next to a blister pack of birth control pills.

Since the patch used in the study was designed for rats, Prausnitz told INSIDER that the team’s next step is to create a patch that will work for humans. He said there’s already a prototype for the human version of patch, but it’s still under development.

They also want to tweak the dosing of the patch so that it can last six months instead of just one.

“We’ve gotten feedback from our colleagues with expertise in global health and contraception, and their feedback is that even less frequent [use] would be appealing,” Prausnitz said. “So our next target would be six months, and we think we can achieve that.”

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A longer-lasting patch wouldn’t just be more convenient – it would also help cut down costs.

“The cost to manufacture one patch for one-month dose or one patch for a six-month dose will probably not be all that different,” he added. “If you only to put two patches on a year instead of 12, there’s a significant cost savings.”

Prausnitz told INSIDER he thinks it will be about two years before the patch can be studied in people, and that it would take “at least” five years and a series of clinical trials before the patch could be approved for human use.

For now, more research is needed.

“Because we are using a well-established contraceptive hormone, we are optimistic that the patch will be an effective contraceptive,” he said in the Georgia Tech statement. “We also expect that possible skin irritation at the site of patch application will be minimal, but these expectations need to be verified in clinical trials.”

If the human patch ultimately proves effective, it could become a convenient birth control option

Normal pain bleeding after IUD insertionSarah Schmalbruch/INSIDERIUDs are long-acting and low-maintenance, but they must be put in place by a medical professional.

Currently, some methods of birth control require users to be vigilant. The pill must be taken every single day, for example, and barrier methods like condoms have to be used every time someone has sex. On the flip side, long-acting and low-maintenance methods, like IUDs and implants, have to be placed by medical professionals.

But the microneedle patch could provide birth control that’s both long-lasting, convenient,and easily self-administered, Prausnitz explained.

This type of contraception could be especially important for women in developing countries where there aren’t enough healthcare providers, he added.

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“We think others will benefit and be interested, too, but the real motivation was to enable women in developing countries with insufficient health care resources to be able to self-administer this long-acting contraceptive,” he said.

While researchers continue to develop the patch, Prausnitz stressed that the team is closely consulting with colleagues who have expertise in birth control and public health.

“We’re really making an effort to reach out to the people who know what would be most useful, so we can design the patch in the best way possible,” he said.


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