Researchers have developed a skin patch that might one day give women the ability to self-administer long-acting birth control.
The patch, which contains "micro-needles" absorbed into the skin, is seen as a possible alternative to current long-acting contraceptives. Those methods -- intrauterine devices (IUDs) and contraceptive implants -- are highly effective at preventing pregnancy. But they have to be inserted by a health care professional, which can be a barrier.
In contrast, the patch would be self-applied -- pressed against the skin for about a minute, to release a network of tiny biodegradable "needles" that carry the hormone progestin.
It is only in the early stages of development. Writing in the Nov. 6 issue of Science Advances, the researchers described the results in lab animals and feasibility testing in a small group of women.
"Various forms of long-acting reversible contraception already exist," explained senior researcher Mark Prausnitz, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, in Atlanta. "Our objective is to have a form that doesn't have to be placed by a health care provider."
One reason, he said, is to improve birth-control access for women in less-developed countries who cannot regularly get to a provider.
But even in countries with more health care resources, like the United States, the patch holds appeal, Prausnitz added.
That point was echoed by Susan Wysocki, a women's health nurse practitioner and medical advisor to the American Sexual Health Association.
Insurance coverage can limit contraception options, she said, and some women do not live near a provider who can insert an IUD or contraceptive implant.
"I'm in favor of having a wide array of contraception options available," said Wysocki, who was not involved in the research. "Different women have different needs. And what works for a woman at one point in her life may not work well at a different point."
The patch contains a special "effervescent" backing, along with a set of micro-needles that carry the birth-control hormone levonorgestrel, a progestin. The patch is pressed against the skin for about a minute, which triggers the effervescent backing to separate from the needles. Those needles are left under the skin, to slowly biodegrade and release levonorgestrel over time.