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Women could one day replace the pill by applying an inexpensive skin patch that lasts for six months.
The new long-acting contraceptive, being developed in the US, is delivered using microneedle skin patch technology originally developed for the painless administration of vaccines.
When the patch is applied for several seconds, the microscopic needles break off and remain under the surface of the skin, where biodegradable polymers slowly release the contraceptive drug called levonorgestrel over time.
Current contraception patches on the market carry the risk of falling off over time.
Other long-acting contraceptives such as the coil usually require a nurse or doctor to implant them or to inject long-lasting contraceptives and short-term methods such as the pill rely on women remembering to take them.
The new patch is still in development but the aim is to create one that delivers contraception for up to six months.
Professor Mark Prausnitz at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who originally published his research in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, said: "There is a lot of interest in providing more options for long-acting contraceptives.
"Our goal is for women to be able to self-administer long-acting contraceptives with the microneedle patch that would be applied to the skin for five seconds just once a month."
Gregory Kopf, director of R&D Contraceptive Technology Innovation at Family Health International which supported the research, added: "The microneedle patch delivery platform being developed by Dr Prausnitz and his colleagues for contraception is an exciting advancement in women's health.
"This self-administered long-acting contraceptive will afford women discreet and convenient control over their fertility, leading to a positive impact on public health by reducing both unwanted and unintended pregnancies."
Prof Prausnitz added that the new technology could be used in parts of the world where women have limited access to reproductive healthcare.
"There is a lot of interest in minimising the number of healthcare interventions that are needed," he said. "Therefore, a contraceptive patch lasting more than one month is desirable, particularly in countries where women have limited access to healthcare.
"But because microneedles are, by definition small, there are limits to how much drug can be incorporated into a microneedle patch."
Although the cost of mass-production has not yet been determined, Prof Prausnitz expected them to be relatively inexpensive.
Let's hope we're not waiting too long because this technology sounds like a positive step in providing even more choices in reproductive health, which is fantastic.
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