Project aims to deliver pain-free microneedle contraception

Engineers and scientists at Cardiff University are working with partners to deliver microneedle technology that provides contraception to women in the world’s poorest countries.

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cardiff-led research consortium will focus on pre-clinical work to develop microneedle patches that have the potential to be painlessly and inconspicuously administered by the user themselves within a few seconds and can last for up to six months.

Cardiff University’s School of Engineering and School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences have secured funding for the project that brings together partners from academia, NGOs, charitable bodies, and NHS Trusts.

Industry partners InnoCore Pharmaceuticals will utilise its biodegradable polymer platform to develop microneedles exhibiting the required mechanical properties for effective and painless puncturing of the skin, followed by contraception delivery for up to six months.

According to Cardiff, socio-economic and cultural barriers are preventing women from obtaining contraception even when they want to plan or prevent pregnancy. There may be a lack of awareness of the risk of becoming pregnant, and some may be deterred by the cost, inconvenience or concerns about side effects. Many simply lack access to effective methods of contraception.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research to address these issues and to develop practical and effective methods of contraception that are centred around the needs of the user. The grant will allow the consortium to assess the technical feasibility, usability and acceptability of the self-administrable contraceptive microneedle patch for use in the countries that need it most.

Leading the project with Dr Sion Coulman, Professor James Birchall, from Cardiff University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, said: “Voluntary family planning is something that many of us take for granted but in some of the poorest countries women and girls don’t have this choice.”

Currently, two of the most popular methods of contraception in low and middle-income countries are injections – which are effective for three months – and implants, which last for three years. These methods are invasive and in the case of the implant, requires a skilled professional for insertion and removal, which can contribute to women not accessing these forms of contraception.

If successful, the programme will lead to an affordable long-acting contraceptive that combines easy and painless self-administration with full bioresorption, thereby avoiding the need for removal surgery.

By the end of this 18-month project, the usability, acceptability and feasibility of this new microneedle contraceptive patch will have been evaluated.