Birth control and technology may be meshing in new ways soon with the possible release of an implantable microchip that can release hormones to prevent pregnancy for up to 16 years. The device would be able to be turned off using a remote control if a woman decides she wants to become pregnant, and turned back on when she wants to prevent pregnancy again.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it is backing MicroCHIPS, a Massachusetts start-up that has developed this new technology, to help bring the product through the testing process. The new method could be available as early as 2018.
The chip contains tiny reservoirs of the hormone levonorgestrel, a form of progestin that is already used in many hormonal birth control methods. Once the device is implanted by a health-care provider into a woman’s arm, buttocks, or abdomen and turned on, a small electric charge will go through it each day melting the ultra-thin seal around the medication and delivering a 30-microgram dose of hormone into the body. The chip will do this every day for 16 years unless the woman decides to turn it off, which she would be able to do herself, without a trip to her health-care provider.
One concern that’s arisen in the initial reactions to this technology is that someone could theoretically turn the chip on or off without the woman’s knowledge. But Robert Farra, MicroCHIPS president and COO, told BBC News that this is less likely than it sounds. “Communication with the implant has to occur at skin contact level distance,” he said. “Someone across the room cannot reprogram your implant. Then we have secure encryption. That prevents someone from trying to interpret or intervene between the communications.”
The company is working on additional encryption to make sure no information could be gathered from the microchip.
MicroCHIPS has already tested many aspects of the technology to see if it could deliver an osteoporosis medication that has traditionally been given to patients through injections. Initial studies in women found that the microchip was able to consistently administer an accurate dose of the medication. Moreover, the chip itself did not cause any adverse side effects.
According to MIT Technology Review, the idea to turn the chip into a birth control delivery system came from Bill Gates himself, who visited the lab two years ago and questioned whether the technology could be used
as a long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) method.
Currently there are two LARC methods on the market—the intrauterine device (IUD) and the contraceptive implant. LARC methods have the highest efficacy rates against unintended pregnancy, in large part because they take user error out of the equation. Once the method is inserted, it works without any effort on the part of the user for a period of three to ten years. If a woman decides she wants to get pregnant, however, she needs to go to a health-care provider to have the device removed, and if she decides to go back on the method after pregnancy, she would need a new device. Both IUDs and implants have high up-front costs when not covered in part or full by insurance, compared to other methods.
If the chip comes to market, it could be a game changer in parts of the world where access to health-care providers and contraceptive methods is very limited. The chip technology is also being looked at to deliver medicines to treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.