Gates Foundation Funds Development of High Tech Condoms


Last Wednesday, researchers from the University of Washington published a paper in PLoS One detailing the design of an innovative condom that uses "electrospinning" to craft the next generation of contraception using customized nano-fibers.

The work of the University of Washington bioengineers led to the creation of an ultra-thin female condom woven out of cloth-like fibers and medicine that block the transmission of semen and HIV in vitro. The electrospun condoms can be designed to dissolve within minutes or a few days.

Creating effective condoms, according to the abstract, is a "global health priority."

“Our dream is to create a product women can use to protect themselves from HIV infection and unintended pregnancy,” said corresponding author Kim Woodrow, a UW assistant professor of bioengineering.

“We have the drugs to do that. It’s really about delivering them in a way that makes them more potent, and allows a woman to want to use it,” Woodrow explained.

The process of "electrospinning," according to the press release, "uses an electric field to catapult a charged fluid jet through air to create very fine, nanometer-scale fibers." By manipulating the product's fibers, the bioengineers can control the solubility, strength and geometry of the condom.

Beyond application in the sphere of sexual technology, this fiber-altering technology "may serve as an innovative platform technology" for other medical advancements. The pharmaceutical community may benefit, for example, as these specially engineered dissoluble fibers present the potential to deliver medicine better than existing gels, tablets, or pills.

In the heat of the moment, can couples count on using it properly?

“That’s where having multiple options really comes into play," co-author Emily Krogstad said. "Depending on cultural background and personal preferences, certain populations may differ in terms of what form of technology makes the most sense for them.”

While condoms — even if used properly — do not protect against all STIs, the impact of commonly-contracted diseases on users of this electrospun condom is still under consideration. Researchers foresee the technology being used in the U.S. and other countries to "offer birth control while also preventing one or more sexually transmitted diseases," according to the University of Washington.

The University of Washington researchers received a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop the technology. 

This grant from the multi-billion dollar Gates Foundation coincides with Melinda Gates' ardent support for contraceptive use, despite her Catholic beliefs.

"I had to wrestle with which pieces of religion do I use and believe in my life, what would I counsel my daughters to do," Gates revealed to Newsweek this past May.

Without supporting women's access to birth control, Gates explains, "we're not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice."

Follow Samantha on Twitter.