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Scientists have developed a new long-lasting, DIY birth control patch.

Sometime soon, all that could be required for six months of contraception is a small, microneedle patch.

Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biomedical Engineering that they have developed a new, inexpensive and long-acting birth control method designed to be self-administered by women.

The research explains that although long-acting contraceptives – such as IUDs and patches that must be worn continuously – are already available, they usually require a medical professional to inject or implant a device.

Unlike these, the microneedle patch is applied and then removed after just seconds, leaving microneedles under the skin’s surface. These needles then administer contraceptive drug levonorgestrel over a period of time – and the researchers believe they could create a patch with enough to last six months.

microneedle patch contraception
How an experimental microneedle contraceptive skin patch could be applied to the skin. Image: Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech.
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This microneedle skin patch technology was originally developed for delivering painless vaccination.

"What’s new here is that, first of all, there’s a contraceptive being incorporated, but second of all, the needles don’t dissolve right away," Georgia Institute of Technology regents professor and co-author of the paper Dr Mark Prausnitz told Business Insider. "They slowly biodegrade over the course of more than a month, slowly releasing the drug over that extended period of time."

The researchers used rats for the study and have not yet tested patches designed to deliver a sufficient amount of hormones for humans, but the prospect could drastically change how women take contraceptive.

"We do not yet know how the contraceptive microneedle patches would work in humans," Dr Prausnitz said in a statement.

"Because we are using a well-established contraceptive hormone, we are optimistic that the patch will be an effective contraceptive. We also expect that possible skin irritation at the site of patch application will be minimal, but these expectations need to be verified in clinical trials."

If further development and clinical trials are successful, Dr Prausnitz expected mass-production costs to be inexpensive enough (about US$1 per dose) for use in developing countries - a game changer for women in these nations with limited access to healthcare.

Don't bin your pills just yet - we'll be waiting at least a few years for the patches to be available to the public - but an easy, painless method that further opens up access to birth control for women around the world? That's worth getting excited about.

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