Research targets new condom technology
Eleven research teams have received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle to pursue new condom designs that could help increase condom use by improving sexual sensation and other aspects of user experience.
Boosting condom use is important, especially among at-risk adolescents. Of teens who had sex in the past month, almost one in four males and almost four in 10 females did not use a condom, 2011 statistics indicate.1
The $100,000 Phase I grants are designed to "foster and accelerate innovative ideas that can improve, and even save, people’s lives," said Chris Wilson, MD, director of Global Health Discovery & Translational Sciences at the Gates Foundation, in a release accompanying the grants announcement.
11 research funding recipients named
Researchers in the United States receiving grants for condom research from the Gates Foundation include the following:
• Shengxi Chen, PhD, of Arizona State University in Tempe will produce a male condom using a material to mimic the surface of the skin for a more natural feel, coupled with a chemical to activate erection.
• Mahua Choudhury, PhD, and scientists at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, TX, will pursue development of low-cost male condoms from a strong and highly elastic three-dimensional hydropolymer embedded with an antioxidant to enhance sexual experience and help prevent HIV transmission.
• Charles Chung and researchers from UbIQ World in San Francisco plan to engineer the surface of male condoms using nanofabrication technology to mimic human skin, thereby enhancing sensation and encouraging use.
• Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH, of Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, and researchers will design a new female condom with a more natural elliptical opening as opposed to the more conventional round one. The condom will be ribbed on one side to provide directed internal stimulation for the female.
• Daniel Resnic and colleagues at Origami Healthcare Products in Los Angeles are refining an internal condom made of soft, pliant silicone for tests in a small, randomized crossover controlled trial.
• Mache Siebel, MD, and researchers at HealthRock in Newton, VA, will test a female condom that is inflated and positioned using air pressure.
• Steve Strauss and scientists at Ultimate Medical Products in Rockville, NY, will refine a presently designed condom applicator that is quick and easy to use, can be applied with one hand, and ensures the condom is correctly fitted,
• Wei Zhang and researchers at QX-System in Milpitas, CA, will design a sliding tampon applicator, a flexible tube surrounded by a soft balloon, which is positioned inside a female condom that can be inserted like a regular tampon. Once the condom is in position, the applicator can be removed and reused.
Goal: more condom use
As a method of birth control, condoms have many advantages including being low-cost, being easy to use, and providing protection against numerous sexually transmitted infections (STIs), says Chen, assistant professor of research at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. However, the drawbacks to more universal and consistent use of condoms are their tendencies to decrease pleasure and/or induce the loss of erection, he notes.
"The reason for these obstacles is that condoms are made from hydrophobic materials, such as latex, polyurethane, and polyisoprene, which are excluded from the human physiological environment, such as the surface of the skin," states Chen. "Thus, currently used condoms always cause the foreign body sensation to decrease pleasure and/or induce the loss of erection."
The Arizona researchers are proposing to design and prepare a skin-like condom, which mimics the membrane of living cells to increase pleasure and enhance erection, says Chen.
Herbenick and her team are developing a new female condom that is attentive to women’s genital anatomy and is designed to enhance sexual pleasure. The design will spring from research and interviews with individuals and couples throughout the world about condom use, HIV/STI prevention, and pleasure.
"Female condom innovation is in its infancy, and we believe that safety and pleasure don’t have to be in conflict," Herbenick said in a press statement accompanying the grant award. "We hope to create a product that promotes pleasure while helping to save lives."
What to do now?
It is "terrific" that the Gates Foundation is funding condom innovations, says Susan Wysocki, WHNP-BC, FAANP, president & chief executive officer of iWomansHealth in Washington, DC, which focuses on information on women’s health issues for clinicians and consumers.
Design of condoms is important. Even more important is to have the ability to mass produce a condom that is quality controlled, Wysocki notes. If the foundation does find the perfect’ design, it will have to team up with a manufacturer for production, she states.
What can clinicians do now to encourage condom use? Wysocki encourages clinicians to check out condoms that are on the market.
"Many are innovative, and designed for more pleasurable experiences versus the thick, libido-killing condoms of the past," she notes.
- Martinez G, Copen CE, Abma JC. Teenagers in the United States: sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, 2006-2010 national survey of family growth. Vital Health Stat 2011; 1-35.