Sperm, shown in blue, collect against an electrospun mesh of nanofibers… (Cameron Ball / University…)
It has been decades since the last major breakthrough of a popular, easy-to-use and effective form of birth control. The pill has been available since 1960 and the IUD since 1965. Condoms have been around for centuries, although today’s latex versions are improvements over those fashioned from sheep guts.
But some innovative research is underway in Kim Woodrow’s bioengineering lab at the University of Washington. She and her students have produced electrically spun cloth with nanometer-sized fibers that can quickly dissolve and release drugs to prevent unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
The promising multipurpose prevention research is detailed in a new study published by the Public Library of Science's open-access journal PLoS One by Woodrow and two of her graduate students, Cameron Ball and Emily Krogstad.
Their study showed how meshes of these new fibers can be fashioned in many ways, to create a physical barrier like a diaphragm or cervical cap, or a fast-dissolving delivery device like the vaginal contraceptive films that are wrapped over a finger and inserted into the vagina. These films dissolve on contact with moisture, similar to the fresh-breath strips that melt in your mouth.
In the study, the team worked with various compounds, including glycerol monolaurate, a common food and cosmetic additive, which has been shown to inhibit the transmission of HIV and other viruses in mucous. Their study found it had potent spermicidal properties as well.
“Our long-term goal is to create a technology that can deliver contraceptives and prevent HIV at the same time,” Woodrow said. “We want to develop products that women can control, use discreetly without having to negotiate with their partners.”
Such technology, if made cheaply and widely available, could be significant in tackling global health problems such as the transmission of AIDS in Africa and the more than 200 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using any modern contraception.
Woodrow said her team has been thinking about Africa, where most of the 34 million HIV-infected people live. She also notes how this technology could be adapted easily to meet different kinds of need in places like the United States, by providing an easy birth control method that would also protect against a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.
“We are pretty early in developing this technology,” she said. “But we think there’s versatility in the fiber.”
She’s particularly interested in ways to deliver nonhormonal chemical contraceptives in ways that are as effective as hormones, but without the troubling side effects.
The fabric is formed through electrospinning, which uses an electric field to turn jets of fluids into fibers so thin they cannot be seen with the naked eye. They can be made from a variety of polymers, made thicker or thinner as needed to dissolve, hold their shape or deliver one or several drugs at the same time.
The research, with coauthor and post-doctoral fellow Thanyanan Chaowanachan, has been funded by the University of Washington’s Center for AIDS Research and the National Institutes of Health. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on global health issues, recently committed $1 million to advance the work.