Microchips and Wireless Birth Control?

July 17, 2014

A novel birth control option is in the works, and it’s in the form of a microchip that, when implanted, could work for up to 16 years. The future is now, folks.

Women may soon have a novel new choice in their birth control options. A company based in Lexington, Massachusetts called MicroCHIPS is developing a chip which, when implanted under the skin, can administer hormones for a duration as long as 16 years. What's more, the device can be turned on and off at the patient's discretion wirelessly via a remote control.

It may sound like science fiction, but as reported in the MIT Technology Review, the development of this technology is well underway, and pre-clinical testing is expected to begin in 2015. If all goes well, MicroCHIPS currently estimates that the device will be available to consumers as early as 2018.

How the Chip Works

The device is tiny, only 20 x 20 x 7 millimeters, and holds a reservoir chip that is 1.5 cm. It is implanted under the skin at one of several different sites, including the buttocks, the upper arm, or the abdomen. The microreservoirs on the chip hold the hormone levonorgestrel. To contain the drug, the microreservoirs are hermetically sealed with titanium and platinum. The seal is melted with an electrical current supplied by the internal battery, which releases 30 micrograms of levonorgestrel per day. The seal hardens in place again after the drug is released.

The device is operated via a remote control. It can be activated when birth control is needed and deactivated again when no longer desired. If a dosage change is needed, that can also be done by using the remote control. The device can either operate on a preset schedule or through remote activation.

Benefits for Women and Their Health Care Providers

Some of the benefits of this new technology are evident: it's extremely convenient and aside from the initial insertion, is noninvasive. It's estimated to last up to 16 years, which could carry most women through approximately half of their reproductive lives. In addition, it carries no compliance issues because the drug is released without the patient taking any action. MicroCHIP expects the technology to be competitive in the marketplace, which could mean reduced costs.

Use of the Device to Deliver Other Drugs

Birth control was not the first potential use envisioned for this chip technology. Reportedly it was Bill Gates who was interested in the development of a family planning device that women could turn on and off themselves. Gates and his wife Miranda, as described on the The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Family Planning website, is seeking to help provide 120 million women across the globe with family planning.

MicroCHIPS is already testing the device to administer human parathyroid hormone fragment (1–34) in the treatment of osteoporosis. In the initial tests, the drug was appropriately delivered, and patients in the study showed an increase in their bone mass. Patients also reported no adverse events after the insertion and felt that their quality of life was not impacted by the device.

Potential Technical Pitfalls

While this new method of birth control seems convenient and appropriate for many women, there are still some technical questions surrounding its use. For instance, MicroCHIP must ensure that the devices can't be turned on or off by anyone other than the patient or a caregiver. This could mean the development of encryption to safeguard the chips against tampering.

References:

Kinkead G. A contraceptive implant with remote control. MIT Technology Review. 4 July 2014. Available at: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/528121/a-contraceptive-implant-with-remote-control/.

MicroCHIPS. Technology. 2014. Available at: http://www.mchips.com/technology/technology.html.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Family Planning Strategy Overview. 2014. Available at: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/Global-Development/Family-Planning.

Farra R, Sheppard NF Jr, McCabe L, et al. First-in-human testing of a wirelessly controlled drug delivery microchip. Sci Transl Med. 2012 Feb 22;4(122):122ra21. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003276. Epub 2012 Feb 16. Available at: http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/4/122/122ra21.abstract?sid=4f2361a4-de1b-4250-97b4-232c9a4d9b5a.