These contraceptive earrings could prevent unwanted pregnancies

Family planning is most effective when used correctly and regularly. That’s the motivation behind a proposed line of rings, earrings, wristwatches and necklaces that administer pregnancy-prevention hormones to women who want convenience, and especially those denied access to traditional forms of birth control.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing this contraceptive jewelry, which administer hormones through tiny patch-like backings as they press against the skin.

Their new report being published in Journal of Controlled Release notes that many sexually active adults struggle with using contraception consistently and correctly. Almost half (45%) of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended — and most of them are due to contraceptive failure, including not using the birth control measure perfectly. For example, more than one in five (21%) young women ages 15 to 24 who take oral contraceptives admit to having missed two or more birth control pills in the past four weeks, according to the CDC.

So the Georgia Institute of Technology researchers, including Dr. Mark Prausnitz, are developing a different way for women to self-administer long-acting birth control, which the developers claim is key for women in developing countries who might want more discretion around their planning choices (most existing weekly patches that are one-and-three-quarter inches across can be hard to conceal). The jewelry delivery mechanism may also help women with limited access to health-care providers, including in the U.S., for regular shots or to have an IUD implanted.

“In some cultures, women might not want anyone, including their partner, to know that they are on birth control, which led to brainstorming about jewelry,” Dr. Prausnitz told MarketWatch. “The contraceptive hormone dose is very small — small enough to hide the patch in a piece of jewelry, such as an earring back.”

And if a woman already wears earrings every day, Dr. Prausnitz’ team theorized that remembering to put on the contraceptive accessory will be an easier habit to adopt than taking a birth control pill every day, or putting on a patch once a week. “It just naturally fits into the routine, so that should help with compliance,” he said.

They developed prototype transdermal patches with the contraceptive hormone levonorgestrel (LNG) that could be applied to the back of an earring, as well as a ring, a choker necklace and a wristwatch. They then ran a few experiments to see how effectively the patches delivered the LNG to pig skin, which resembles human skin, as well as what impact it would have on hairless rats. One group of rats wore the patches on their backs for a week. The other group wore the patches for 16 hours, and then took them off for 8 hours, before putting them back on for another 16 hours, to mimic how a woman would probably take off her earrings before going to sleep, and then put them back on in the morning.

Mark Prausnitz, Georgia Tech
An earring is shown paired with a transdermal patch backing that would administer contraceptive hormones.

The researchers found that the patch delivered a consistent dose of the hormone in the pig skin and in the rats who wore it for the week; as for the rats who had the patches taken off for eight hours a night, their LNG hormone levels dropped, but still remained high enough above the concentration threshold needed to keep the contraceptive effective. What’s more, there was no sign of skin irritation, like redness or swelling, to the rat’s skin as a result of the patches.

Dr. Prausnitz envisions selling these contraceptive patches as separate earring backs that would work with a woman’s own stud earrings. “We didn’t want to force women to wear our piece of jewelry — plus, if everyone was walking around with that earring on, soon everyone would know what it meant,” he said. “You have a back with the patch stuck on it already, and there would be a little release liner on top to protect it, and then you would peel off the release liner and stick it on your ear.” At the end of the week, you would toss those earring backs out and use a new set, similar to how you change out weekly contact lenses.

It remains to be seen how the bracelet, choker or wristwatch patches would be put into practice.

Dr. Prausnitz wouldn’t speculate on how much these birth control earrings would ultimately cost consumers. “The price of a pharmaceutical product is only loosely related to the cost of making it,” he admitted. “Manufacturing of these patches should be pretty inexpensive; well under a dollar each. But what the pharmaceutical company ultimately sells it for to recoup the costs of research and development… there will be a markup to reflect that.”

Mark Prausnitz, Georgia Tech
This jewelry is paired with a transdermal patch backing that would administer contraceptive hormones.

Planned Parenthood reports that a one-month’s supply of birth control patches can run up to $150, or birth control pills can run up to $50, although these are often free under health insurance plans or through some government programs. A birth control shot can cost up to $100; a vaginal ring up to $200; and a birth control implant or IUD up to $1,300. In comparison, condoms can cost up to $2 apiece, although many are handed out for free from clinics and government programs as well. Vasectomies can run up to $1,000.

And don’t expect to see these new birth control baubles hitting the market for another five years or so, even though patches such as Ortho Evra are already in circulation.

Dr. Prausnitz noted that more experimentation is needed to see how these patches developed for jewelry work on larger animal models before they would be cleared for testing on humans, including how effective the hormone delivery through the skin is, and how human skin reacts to the patches. They also need to keep fiddling with the prototypes to make them both easy to manufacture, and easy to use.

This isn’t the first time that contraceptive jewelry has been considered. The Contraceptive Technology Innovation Exchange listed the idea last year after surveying several women and their communities in India and Kenya. They found that sex and birth control are taboo topics there, especially for unmarried teens, and these women wanted ways to take contraceptives that didn’t broadcast their sexual activity.

“An everyday ornament, like a bracelet, belt or earring, with a mechanism that releases contraceptive compounds into the user’s skin” was the CTIE’s No. 1 “moonshot concept” for human-centered birth control design.

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