Remote-controlled birth control?

16-year birth control that can be switched on and off by remote control? It's in the works!

Developers at MicroCHIPS in Massachusetts are working on a remote-controlled implant that could deliver a daily dose of levonorgestrel for up to 16 years. Backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the implant would be placed by a health care provider under the skin of a woman’s butt, upper arm, or abdomen.

The background

The concept of a remote-controlled contraceptive implant has been a few years in the making. In 2012, researchers from MicroCHIPS, Harvard, Case Western Reserve University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released results from a small clinical trial that was the first ever to test a remote-controlled drug-releasing implant in humans.

The implant they tested released a medication for osteoporosis (a medical condition where bones weaken over time). For the majority of the patients, the implant delivered the medication in a steady dose. One of the eight patients in the study did not receive the medication, which alerted the scientists that the patient’s implant had malfunctioned. Despite the significant size of the implant—about as big as a man’s watch face—the study participants reported very little discomfort within a few weeks of getting the implant (though they reported substantial discomfort on the day the implant was placed).

Plans for the future

With the latest proposed design, the activated contraceptive implant would release 30 micrograms per day of levonorgestrel, a super safe hormone used in various methods already on the market. Two popular methods containing levonorgestrel include the Mirena and Skyla IUDs, which release 20 and 14 micrograms per day, respectively. Some emergency contraceptive pills are made with levonorgestrel, and some birth control pills contain levonorgestrel along with estrogen. The main side effect of this particular hormone is changes in bleeding, with some women having spotting between periods, some having really short periods, and some having irregular periods. On the plus side, levonorgestrel can help to reduce cramping for some women.

Potential Perks

Proponents of the implant highlight a few potential benefits the device could offer:

  • Control in the hands of the user. If a woman decides she wants to conceive, she could theoretically use a wireless remote control to turn the implant off (or, alternatively, to turn it back on). She could do this herself without a trip to her health care provider.

  • Proposed 16-year lifespan. That’s nearly half a woman’s reproductive life!

  • Empowerment for women with barriers to health care. The implant’s long lifespan and on/off switch mean women can decide whether or when to get pregnant without needing to be able to visit a health care provider or pick up birth control refills.

Potential Cons

If you’re skeptical about this implant, you’re not alone. Here are a few common concerns:

  • Hackers. The idea that someone could turn the implant off or on without a woman’s knowledge is a scary thought. However, developers describe how (de)activation can occur only when the remote is in contact with the skin, so no one can mess with the implant from across the room. Encryption would prevent someone from hacking the implant.

  • Fear of information being collected. Some worry that information could be collected from women using the implant, such as personal data, medical information, and location tracking. There are no plans to include these types of features in this implant, but with FitBit and all the other health-tracking gear hitting the market, it’s not hard to imagine a future like this.

  • Large size. The current prototype of the implant measures about ¾ of an inch square and ¼ of an inch thick (20x20x7 millimeters). An implant of this size may not be concealable or comfortable, particularly if implanted in the upper arm or abdomen. If a woman with an implant wanted to turn it off and get pregnant, it might be particularly uncomfortable to have an implant in her belly along with a growing baby.

  • Lack of safety research. The first study of a medication-delivering implant lasted only 4 months. Many years of research must be done to demonstrate that the device is safe for women to use for an extended period of time.

All in all, this remote-controlled implant still has to pass safety, efficacy, and security tests before it hits the market, so it might be quite a few years before women can tap into this technology. (In other words, we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath.) In the meantime, there are lots of other great options.

Would you ever try a remote-controlled contraceptive implant? Or do you think remote-controlled technology should only go as far as your television?

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