5 Contraceptives Scientists Are Developing Right Now, & These Upgrades Are Way Overdue

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It’s been nearly 60 years since the first oral contraceptives came on the market, and nearly 100 years since the first latex condom. Without question, those inventions have been among the world’s greatest innovations when it comes to reproductive health and women’s rights. But the way that we understand sex, safe sex, and sexual health has changed, so isn’t it time for our contraceptives to get an upgrade, too? Researchers think so. And the world’s leading health organizations and companies are looking for ways to make sexual protection more effective, easier to use, and (in some cases) just more enjoyable. So, what does the future hold when it comes to contraceptives? Here are some ways science is upgrading contraceptives — and I have to say, some of these changes are way overdue.

New technologies are cropping up in the field of contraception, including hormone-releasing microchips, revamped condom designs, and low-cost, long-lasting male birth control injections, according to a Mashable report. The good news is that increasing choice for all women appears to be at the center of many of those innovations. Speaking to Mashable, Dr. Laneta Dorflinger, director of contraceptive technology innovation at FHI 360, explained why making contraception with choice in mind was so crucial.

We need new contraceptive options that will fill gaps in the method mix, and increase choices for women. A sizable percentage of women who have an unmet need for contraception do not use a method due to side effects — real or perceived. New innovations ... could have a substantial impact.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Upgrading the field of contraceptives has serious implications for the reproductive health of millions of women worldwide. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that some 43 million women in the U.S. are at risk of unintended pregnancy — meaning they are of childbearing age, are sexually active, and do not want to be pregnant. Virtually all of those women have been able to access some form of birth control to help prevent pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. But millions more women worldwide don’t have that option: the World Health Organization estimates that 214 million women in developing countries would like to protect themselves from pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, but don’t have access to low-cost, reliable birth control.

And so, the race to re-invent and revolutionize birth control is on. Here are some of the new technologies that are among the most promising, according to science.

Microchips Will Lead To Contraception By Remote Control

A tiny microchip, implanted under the skin and controlled by remote, could be the next breakthrough in the market for long-term hormonal contraception. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Family Planning Program, a Lexington, Massachusetts, company called MicroCHIPS has begun clinical trials for a chip that can deliver a daily dose of contraceptive medication — and last up to 16 years.

Designing Condoms For Pleasure & Protection

Condoms haven’t seen a significant upgrade for some 50 years, according to the Gates Foundation, and that’s one of the reasons that getting people to use them consistently has posed such a challenge. Since 2013, the Foundation has been encouraging researchers to submit their proposals and designs for $100,000 in grant funds toward “the Next Generation of Condom.” So far, winners include a condom that fits on the head of the penis, leaving the rest bare; others made of ultra-sheer plastics and other materials; and the Origami condom, that folds over the penis for better sensation and lubrication.

Coming Soon: Male Contraception Without Surgery

But the winner for the best birth control innovations that no one is talking about probably goes to Vasalgel — dubbed the “no-scalpel vasectomy.” Developed by the Parsemus Foundation, the procedure involves a painless injection of gel into the vans deferens, blocking the pathway of sperm during ejaculation. And if the results of early trials hold true, Vasalgel is effective, long-lasting (up to 15 years after just one treatment), and totally reversible. But, the Foundation has had trouble raising enough funds to bring the technology to market and — because of the nature of the project — crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo aren’t an option. (The Parsemus Foundation accepts donations on its website.)

Existing Hormone Implants Will Get More Effective

Birth control implants, like Implanon and Nexplanon, have been around for about 30 years. But, according to the FHI 360 website, high cost has kept the method out of the hand of millions of women in need of long-term protection. They describe the Sino-implant (II) as a “a highly effective, low-cost” version of the subdermal implant, designed specifically to help with family planning in areas where women have little to no access to regular health services. While other implants can cost as much as $20 or more per unit, the Sino-implant (II) is priced at $8 per unit, according to the company. It has been registered in more than 20 countries already, and the company is working with the WHO to secure regulatory approvals.

Other, Non-Hormonal Methods Will Get Tweaks, Too

Condoms aren’t the only non-hormonal technology in need of a redesign. The diaphragm, which is 88 percent effective in protecting against pregnancy (according to Planned Parenthood), is long overdue for an upgrade. Once the most widespread form of protection, diaphragm use has dropped in recent years in favor of more user-friendly options. But the makers of a new product, called Caya, is trying to change all that with a design that’s more “anatomically friendly and visually attractive,” according to The Atlantic. Some 20 years in the making, Caya was designed with the help of vaginal autonomists to make it smaller and more comfortable than traditional diaphragms. According to the website, Caya is currently available with a prescription.

With all the new technologies under development, it’s an exciting time for reproductive health and safety. Whether the goal is family planning using hormonal methods, barrier methods, or STI protection using a combo of both, the options available will soon look nothing like those of even a decade ago. And — if they mean cheaper, more effective protection in the hands of all who want it — these upgrades are long overdue.