Scientists have developed a new contraceptive pill designed only to be taken once-a-month. The monthly gelatine pill has so far undergone official testing on pigs and will be trialed on humans in time to come.
Once full scientific testing has been completed, the oral pill will hopefully become another available option for preventing pregnancy in people with female reproductive organs. It's thought the introduction of the monthly pill will offer women more choice when it comes to controlling their fertility, as well as removing the daily labour of having to remember to take the pill.
How does the once-a-month contraceptive pill work?
The gelatine contraceptive pill - so-called because it's coated in gelatine to prevent it from being quickly dissolved by stomach acid - is shaped like a star and placed inside an edible capsule. The drug has recently been tested on pigs and the findings from the initial trial were published in the journal Science of Translational Medicine.
As the research explains, once it's orally consumed and reaches the stomach, the capsule dissolves and the star unfolds into its full, six-armed shape. Thanks to the gelatine coating, the drug remains inside the stomach for a month and gradually releases contraceptive hormones located on its various arms. During the four weeks, as the hormones are steadily exhausted, the star is broken down by the body bit by bit and excreted in the... usual way.
How effective will the once-a-month contraceptive pill be?
The reason the monthly gelatine contraceptive pill is being developed is because experts are keen to address a problem with the existing, daily pill. In theory, thepill is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy - but this rate is only accurate when the pill is taken 'perfectly' by users: at exactly the same time every day.
"The effectiveness of oral contraception is compromised because of a lack of patient adherence," the authors of the once-a-month pill study explained. When taken 'imperfectly' (ie, if you miss the odd pill or take it at a different time each day) the contraceptive pill's effectiveness is reduced to just 91%, which is certainly not as watertight as people might hope when family planning.
"There is a need to identify methods of improving adherence in the patient population that prefers oral pills," researchers in the trial wrote. The once-a-month contraceptive pill may be the answer to this. In theory, it should have a 99% effectiveness rate because it uses the same combination of hormones to prevent pregnancy as the regular pill while removing the risk element.
"To be effective, consistent drug levels must be maintained for prolonged periods," the experts explained. With the once-monthly pill designed to release hormones consistently and gradually over four weeks inside the user's body, the margin for human error is removed and the chances of conceiving would, therefore, be minimal.
What do experts think of the monthly gelatine contraceptive pill?
Overall, the reception seems pretty positive. Dr Diana Mansour, Vice President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), tells Cosmopolitan: "The concept of a monthly oral contraceptive pill is attractive and has the potential to broaden contraceptive choice. In theory, a monthly pill may be more effective than current oral contraceptives which women are required to take every day."
Dr Diana does caveat this with a reminder, however, that "the development of such a novel contraceptive is still in its early stages as this method was tested in pigs rather than humans. It provides a proof of concept and we look forward to further research in this area."
In the interim, she reminds us that "there is a wide range of contraceptive methods available to women. If daily pill-taking is a problem then women can opt for the copper IUD, the intrauterine system (IUS) or implant. These are more effective than oral contraception with fewer than one woman in 100 becoming pregnant each year using these longer-acting reversible contraceptives, compared to around 9 in 100 women taking the pill."
When will the monthly gelatine contraceptive pill be available for use?
Sadly, not for a while yet. While scientific testing is underway, it has not yet been trialed on humans, meaning there's a long way to go before the drug secures necessary approval for public use. However, off the back of the promising research results, biotech company Lyndra is developing the star contraceptive pill further, assisted by funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Before the contraception can be offered to the public, scientists need to ensure that the presence of the drug in the stomach for a prolonged period wouldn't have any concerning health implications. "Our studies suggest there shouldn't be any problem with blockages or digesting and passing food. We take safety very seriously," said Dr Giovanni Traverso, a professor from Harvard Medical School who developed the prototype along with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the meantime, all we can do is keep taking our daily contraceptive pills on time, and hope that one day, this new scientific development might relieve us from that chore.