As a college student, there is always something to “stay on top of,” from extracurriculars to classes, families, and friends. Add onto that taking “The Pill” every day, and you’ve got yourself a laundry list of to-do’s, making it difficult for many women to remember to take the pill every day. The pill’s use becomes even more of a hassle for women who only want children at certain times because of timing issues with stopping and restarting the pill. Additionally, women with poor access to healthcare cannot consistently access and use the pill.
However, a new form of hormonal contraception, which can be turned on and off and lasts 16 years, may make the everyday obstacles of using the pill obsolete. Researchers at M.I.T. are on the verge of a birth control revolution, already referred to by some as the “digital pill.”
Microchip technology. That’s what it’s all about. The microchip is 20 x 20 x 7 mm (about the size of a scrabble tile!) and will be implanted under the skin of the buttocks, abdomen, or upper arm. Dr. Robert Langer and his team of researchers at M.I.T. are working with a bio-tech firm, MicroCHIPS to develop this piece of technology.
This isn’t the first microchip technology implemented into the health industry. MicroCHIPS originally developed the first microchip device for patients with osteoporosis in 2012. After the company’s success with a programmable drug delivery system, the family planning unit of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided MicroCHIPS and the lab at M.I.T. with a multi-million dollar grant to explore the chip’s possibility as a form of birth control. Gates and his wife said they believe the chip could be an innovative way to promote reproductive justice in developing countries beyond its use for convenience in the western world.
The chip contains reservoirs of the hormone levonorgestrel, which is already being used in some contraceptives today. In fact, the official Plan B pill is a levonorgestrel-only emergency contraceptive pill. The reservoirs in the chip contain enough hormone to last 16 years and will come with a remote that will allow for turning on and off the device in accordance with the user’s wishes regarding pregnancy. Researchers are now focused on making the remote secure and resistant to “ovarian hacking,” as reporters call it. As of now, the remote control will need to be placed directly next to the skin to establish communication, with the hopes that the close range will avoid hackers from listening in on the encrypted signal.
How does the microchip actually release levonorgestrel? The hormone is contained on the chip by a hermetic titanium and platinum seal. It is released by passing an electric current from an internal battery to the seal, which melts it temporarily. This temporary degradation allows the hormone to be released automatically each day.
Wait, how is this different than current birth control implants?
There are a number of advantages to this new device, which may make it superior to current methods. Current hormonal implants last a maximum of only about five years. The digital pill more than triples this time. More importantly, researchers and developers at MicroCHIPS believe that the device’s ability to be turned on and off will be a major selling point. In the U.S., this convenience factor may be just that. Elsewhere, though, this control gives women autonomy over their body to choose when they intend and don’t intend to get pregnant with less or no involvement of their spouses, families, or any medical professionals.
The plan is to have the device ready to test on women in 2016 with the cost estimated at about $1,000. MicroCHIP birth control is just a first step to a more digitalized contraceptive future. Who knows what the next steps are and what future health applications await us? Our phones may even eventually have an app to sync with this device!