January 15, 2019
The dream of being able to have birth control when you need it, without a visit to the doctor’s office or having to remember to take your pill every day, is on the horizon.
Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing a painless, contraceptive microneedle patch that women can apply themselves — likely into an arm or leg — in five seconds, and only needs to be done once a month. The best part? No doctor visit is needed.
The patch — not to be confused with a stick-on nicotine patch — uses dissolvable microneedles that implant into a woman’s skin and slowly dissolve over time, delivering a hormone that is the basis of the most popular contraception — a drug called levonorgestrel that is the active ingredient in the "morning after" pill. This technology is based on a similar approach developed by the university to make needle-free vaccines, the researchers explain in their study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.
Microneedle patches have some great advantages: People can administer them at home without needing medical supervision, and because the needles end up in the skin, there's no hazardous waste from sharps. They're also relatively inexpensive and don't need to be refrigerated, making them easier to store and transport, New Atlas reports.
While the patch works similarly to other patches, Georgia Tech researchers developed a new design that would let it slowly release the hormone dose over a month. Tiny air bubbles are added to the tops of the microneedles, so that when the patch is shifted sideways the needles break off easily. The microneedles made of levonorgestrel are mixed with polymers that safely break down in the body, releasing the drug for weeks at a time, and potentially longer.
Testing the patch on rats, the team found that 100 microneedles were enough to raise the levels of levonorgestrel in their bloodstream high enough to have a contraceptive effect. But researchers did not confirm that this dose would prevent pregnancy, but prior knowledge of the hormone says it should in those amounts, researchers said.
Georgia Tech’s press-on patch should only cost about a dollar a dose, according to the Georgia Tech team. “Instead of injecting sustained-release formulations by needle and syringe, a microneedle patch is briefly and painlessly applied to the skin to break off and embed biodegradable microneedles for the slow release of contraceptive hormone,” the researchers wrote.
While a human study is need to confirm the efficacy of this birth control method, researchers believe the patch could be formulated to deliver hormones for as long as six months, or for periods as short as one-week.