Researchers at MIT have developed an oral contraceptive pill that releases hormones slowly into the stomach with the goal of developing a product that only needs to be taken on a once-a-month basis. A trial of the device in pigs, described yesterday (December 4) in Science Translational Medicine, indicates that the technology is as good as the daily birth control pill at maintaining high levels of contraceptive hormones in the blood.

“The concept of a monthly oral contraceptive pill is attractive and has the potential to broaden contraceptive choice,” Diana Mansour, vice president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare in the UK, tells the BBC. “However, the development of such a novel contraceptive is still in its early stages. We look forward to further research in this area.”

While the oral contraceptive pill is up to 99 percent effective for women...

The technology described in the current study consists of a star-shaped device, packed into a capsule for easy swallowing. Once it reaches the stomach, the capsule dissolves and the device unfolds, becoming too large to exit the stomach easily but not large enough to create an obstruction.

There, it begins gradually releasing levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestogen, and continues to do so over the next few weeks. After having released its contents, it breaks down and can pass safely through the digestive system.

When they tested the device in six female pigs, the researchers found that levonorgestrel levels remained high in the blood even 21 days after administration of the pill, and was still detectable after 29 days. By contrast, five pigs given a single oral dose of levonorgestrel showed just trace amounts of the hormone in their blood two days later.

Lyndra Therapeutics, a spinoff company that several of the study’s coauthors are involved in, is now working on developing the technology to tailor dosages to humans and make sure the hormones are released at the right rate, The Guardian reports.

The same team has already used the technology to deliver other types of drugs, and study coauthor Robert Langer tells The Guardian that he envisages slow-release pills being applicable to many diseases in the future. “I hope there will be pills that people could swallow that could last for any length of time to treat different diseases, like mental health diseases and opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s, [AIDS].”

Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at cofford@the-scientist.com.

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