Scientists are developing a contraceptive pill you only need to take once a month

Sophie Gallagher

Setting an alarm on your phone, putting it next to your toothbrush – however you remember to take your oral contraceptive pill, it can be a hassle and easily forgotten in the midst of a busy daily routine.

But now scientists are developing an oral contraceptive that would only need to be taken once a month, the first of its kind in the world.

The team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who are developing the pill say it could be available within three to five years.

Publishing their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers say they are trying to address the problem of women forgetting to take the daily dose (which can lead to accidental pregnancy) or women in the developing world unable to access daily contraceptives.

The study authors say if it is successful it would have a “significant impact” on women and their families.

Study co-senior author Dr Giovanni Traverso said: “For many, this may be hard to believe. But our preclinical data is encouraging us along that road.”

The pill would be a gelatin-coated capsule based on a special “star-shaped” delivery system, which the MIT team originally developed for those taking HIV or malaria medication.

The star shape is important because it allows a slow release of the drug load, meaning three week’s worth of contraceptive could be swallowed in one go and stay in the stomach to gradually be absorbed by the body.

Tests in pigs showed this method can achieve the same concentration as taking a daily pill.

“Our capsule represents a major advancement towards providing women with a once-a-month contraceptive,” said Traverso. “We wanted to help empower women with respect to fertility control and are pleased to report our progress towards that goal.”

The next step to bring the pill closer to human trials is to scale up manufacturing process and safety evaluations, work that is being largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The team also need to work out a way to kick-start the breakdown of the pill, and pass it through the digestive tract, once the drugs have been offloaded.

Potential catalysts include changes in acidity, changes in temperature or exposure to certain chemicals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern contraceptive method, such as birth control pills.

Study co-senior author Dr Ameya Kirtane, of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, said: “Coming up with a monthly version of a contraceptive drug could have a tremendous impact on global health.

“The impact that oral contraceptives can have on human health and gender equality cannot be overstated.”

The researchers also believe that such a pill could be appealing for women who would prefer a long-lasting oral contraceptive over other long-term contraceptives such as the coil.