Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have created a stretchy fabric that is so fine-pored that it can block sperm. The contraceptive can also protect against HIV infection.
Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new method of contraception – a nanofabric that is supposed to dissolve gradually in the body. The contraceptive could also prevent HIV infection by releasing antiviral agents.
"One possible mechanism for use is as a small square of about five times five centimeters that is folded in half over a finger and inserted into the vagina," says Cameron Ball, who heads the researchers at the University of Washington.
The material would be designed to adhere and stay in place, and would form a gel after dissolving.
And because it is invisible, a woman can use it without the consent of her partner, the researchers say.
The mesh could also be used to coat other available contraceptives like diaphragms or vaginal rings.
A more practical contraceptive
This is the first time that nanofibres have been considered as a potential method of birth control.
"Our dream was to create a product women can use to protect from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy," says Kim Woodrow, one of the University of Washington researchers.
But despite offering an "enthralling possibility," the practicality of this contraceptive remains to be seen, says Michael Ludwig, a gynecologist at the Hamburg-based Amedes Group, which specializes in reproductive medicine.
"The most important feature of a contraception method is that it's easy to use," he notes.
Let’s face it, condoms can be a nuisance because they have to be worn directly before sex.
And people can be so unpredictable when it comes to sex, says Ludwig. This is why contraceptives that involve applying foams and creams containing spermicides have proven unpopular.
And other birth control options like contraceptive patches, which are applied to the skin, haven’t done any better.
"They have to be changed regularly and […] they are externally visible," says Ludwig.
He believes that the success of the contraceptive nanofiber being developed at the University of Washington depends on its practicability.
Current methods not effective enough
New methods of contraception that can prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are needed.
"We have countless methods for contraception but we have almost nothing that prevents infections during sexual intercourse," says gynecologist Ludwig.
Condoms remain the only way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), he adds.
On the other hand, birth control pills, which help prevent pregnancy, offer no protection against STIs.
"And we are not only dealing with HIV, there are a lot of other sexually transmitted diseases that are even much easier to catch - hepatitis, for example," Ludwig says.
Infections like human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts and cervical cancer, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, are also much easier to transmit.
And even though condoms help protect against STIs, they don’t offer total protection against pregnancies.
"Condoms offer only one tenth of the protection as the pill does," Ludwig says.
The safest way to avoid pregnancy (apart from abstinence) is to combine condoms and the pill. And even gynecologist Ludwig asks whether anyone really does that.
In Germany, more than half of the people between 18 and 49 prefer the pill as a contraceptive, and only a third use condoms, according to a survey by the country’s Federal Centre for Education Health (BZgA).
It is younger people between 18 and 25 who are more likely to combine the pill and condoms to prevent pregnancy. People who are older tend to use one method of birth control.