MicroCHIPS, an IT start-up company with links to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is developing a radical new contraceptive – a tiny microchip implanted under the skin that can be operated wirelessly by remote control.
In the 1990s, Robert S. Langer – the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and reportedly “the most cited engineer in history” – and his colleagues Michael Cima and John Santini, developed a microchip technology that could release controlled amounts of chemicals.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Langer’s MIT lab received a visit from Bill Gates, who inquires with Langer whether it would be feasible to create a new method of birth control that a woman could turn on and off as she likes and which she can use for many years.
Langer proposed that his controlled release microchip might offer a solution. Leasing the technology to MicroCHIPS, the company have developed a device measuring just 20 x 20 x 7 mm designed to be implanted under the skin of the buttocks, abdomen or upper arm.
The chip contains tiny reservoirs of the hormone levonorgestrel, which is already used in some contraceptives. The chip dispenses 30 mcg of levonorgestrel every day, and can hold enough of the hormone to do this for up to 16 years.
When a woman wishes to conceive, she simply turns off the device with a remote. The chip would not need to be removed from the woman until 16 years of use have elapsed. By contrast, current hormonal birth control implants last a maximum of 5 years.
The levonorgestrel is contained on the chip using a hermetic titanium and platinum seal developed by MicroCHIPS. The hormone is released by passing an electric current from an internal battery through the seal, which melts it temporarily, allowing a small dose of levonorgestrel to be released each day.
According to MicroCHIPS president Robert Farra, “the idea of using a thin membrane like an electric fuse was the most challenging and the most creative problem we had to solve.”
Speaking to BBC News, Farra suggested “the ability to turn the device on and off provides a certain convenience factor for those who are planning their family.”
Although some critics of the device are worried about the potential for the microchip to be “hacked,” Farra claims that the communication between the remote and implant “has to occur at skin contact level distance,” so “someone across the room cannot reprogramme your implant.”
“Then we have secure encryption,” he says. “That prevents someone from trying to interpret or intervene between the communications.”
MIT Technology Review points out that recently an international coalition of governments, companies, philanthropies and nonprofit organizations committed to providing family planning to 120 million more women in the world by 2020.
As new birth control options are rarely produced by private companies, MIT believe that the MicroCHIPS implant could play an important role in this mission.
MicroCHIPS, with the backing of Bill Gates, plan to submit the implant for preclinical testing in the US next year, and believe that the device could go on sale by 2018.