While condoms are an effective form of contraception and defense against sexually transmitted infections, they’re not always a popular option during intercourse.
In an attempt to develop an alternative option for women, researchers from the University of Washington have created female condoms, which can dissolve in the uterus. The condoms first provide contraception, and then as they dissolve, they release drugs engineered to prevent HIV.
“Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy,” said one of the lead authors Kim Woodrow, a UW assistant professor of bioengineering. “We have the drugs to do that. It’s really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent, and allows a woman to want to use it.”
The condoms are made through a process called electrospinning, in which an electric field is used to throw charged fluid through the air. Once the stream of fluid hits the field, it stretches and is shaped into nanometer-sized fibers, which can be manipulated to control their shape and solubility. The fibers can ultimately incorporate other larger molecules – such as proteins and antibodies – which can are difficult to deliver through other methods.
The final fiber material can either physically block sperm or release drugs such as spermicides to prevent pregnancy. According to the researchers, the condoms can incorporate numerous kinds of drugs to treat for more STIs than just HIV. The timing of the dissolution is also versatile – either dissolving within a few hours or gradually over a couple of days, and the different drugs can be released at different time periods.
While this newly developed dissolving condom is less noticeable than the conventional condom and more versatile than other forms of contraception, the authors understand that it still may not be used during intercourse. They hope it will provide another option for women who may be looking for an alternative form of contraception and STI-prevention.
“At the time of sex, are people going to actually use it? That’s where having multiple options really comes into play,” said co-author Emily Krogstad, a first-year grad student at the University of Washington. “Depending on cultural background and personal preferences, certain populations may differ in terms of what form of technology makes the most sense for them.”