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A Clever Condom August 13, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Diseases, Human Body, Think About It.
Tags: , , ,

Most teens today are probably familiar with how condoms work. If you’re sexually active, you already know that condoms can help to protect you from sexually transmitted diseases and also reduce the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy.

But, researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, United States, are trying to create a new gel that acts like a condom. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Yet if all goes well, this new gel could be a surprisingly clever weapon against semen and any bacteria or viruses contained within it! This includes viruses such as HIV.

Creating A Trap

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  In developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But in developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

When you picture a condom, you likely picture something more solid, while a gel would be softer, wouldn’t it? Not always so. This particular gel is a liquid when it’s in contact with the vagina – a highly acidic environment. Once alkaline semen makes its way in there though, the gel turns solid. In fact, any particles that are bigger than 50 nanometres are trapped. This includes semen, HIV and even viruses such as the herpes virus.

Getting It Right

This research team isn’t the first to try making a gel to combat HIV. Unfortunately, other teams haven’t been successful at creating an effective gel to protect women against HIV. In fact, one study found that the gel actually increased the rate of HIV infection. You can see that it’s a tough task to get it right.

It’s Not For You

Why isn’t this condom for you? It’s not that you shouldn’t be using one, of course. Researchers are working on this new condom mostly for women in countries where HIV is common. They also want this condom to be a low-cost alternative for women to get protection if their partner won’t wear a condom. In this way, women can take control of their sexual health.

Pick and Choose

With most of my readers being in the United States, Canada and Britain, you can pick and choose from a number of birth control options and condoms. For many of you, these will be provided without cost through your school or sexual health clinics. We’re lucky here to have access to all of these choices. We also live in a society where you can say “no” to sex without a condom and generally, our culture is one where your choice is respected.

So, shouldn’t women all around the world have choices too?

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1. David Bradley - August 13, 2009

I can see the point, of course, but these solid particles of gel that form when in contact with alkaline substances…? Won’t they be a tox threat after sex?

2. Miss Weird Scientist - August 13, 2009

I imagine potentially, yes. From what I’ve learned, this ‘gel’ condom is years away from being a viable option and ensuring it’s safe is not a task I envy for researchers. ;)

I would tend to be concerned about it affecting the natural balance/acidity of the vagina afterwards. This in itself might end up making a woman more susceptible to infection. Also, given that past attempts to create an HIV gel not only failed but increased the number of infections, I can see there would be issues with this new product as well.

Still, I’m well chuffed to see attention in the research sector being given to this important area of women’s health (and affecting everyone as well), particularly as there are numerous challenges that pertain to birth control and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in developing nations.

3. Peter Gregory - August 14, 2009

The authors of the original paper from the University of Utah comment on these issues here: http://materialsviews.com/matview/display/en/973/TEXT

4. materialsdave - August 14, 2009

If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind the story, you can read the original Advanced Functional Materials paper for free at http://ow.ly/jEMR

Dave Flanagan, Editor-in-Chief, Advanced Functional Materials

5. David Bradley - August 14, 2009

Nice one Dave.

It’s funny I wrote about earlier attempts at creating chemical condoms back in the late 1990s for ChemWeb.com and others. One of the problems that will no doubt still persist is educating potential users, particularly, in the developing world, agencies and medics having spent a couple of decades trying to convince people that sex using a rubber is essential. If these virtual condoms become a reality, then reversing that educational impetus is going to come up against sturdy opposition I would imagine.

6. Mr.Science - March 16, 2010

I really dont see how a gel condom could keep out infections. When it comes in contact with the vagina a really acidic enviroment as the collum said, would lead to more infections wouldn’t it. Would this new ‘gel condom’ protect wemon or harm them. I still think birth control would be a greater resource for wemon other then this new gel condom. Besides have they proved it to be useful.

7. Miss Weird Scientist - March 18, 2010

We hope it will protect them. But, the reality is that we just don’t know yet if it will do that or in a worst case scenario, harm them and make them more susceptible to infection.

8. Mr.Science - May 1, 2010

Well another thing I dont get Is that is it’s a “gel” condom How would that even stop sperm from getting in contact with the vagina.

9. Miss Weird Scientist - May 10, 2010

I know it’s a bit of a confusing idea. It’s hard to think of a gel as a solid but this is exactly what it becomes once it’s in contact with semen. It’s all about having the right conditions to make it go from a gel to a solid.

10. Mr.Science - May 28, 2010

Wow that is very interesting and nerve wrecking . But what i am saying is What if it had a defect and the gel did not become solid what cautions would then have affect.

11. Miss Weird Scientist - May 31, 2010

Yes, the idea of a defect is definitely a scary one, isn’t it? But we have to understand what a ‘defect’ actually means. If it means there is an ongoing issue where the condom doesn’t do what it should (i.e. not solidify and trap the sperm), then we would hopefully discover this during clinical trials (the phases where we test out the product and try to identify problems). This would let us find ways to improve the design and safety.

We may also want to consider latex condoms as a comparison too. While things can go wrong, these are more often from human error (i.e. condom breaking). When a person opens a package with a condom in it, they are expecting that it does not have any damage. This sort of thing comes under quality control, which would also apply to the new gel condom.

So basically, a defect in the design is something we expect to ideally discover before the condom is approved and available for use. But a defect in one or a small number might not be the design so much as a quality control issue where an isolated incident happened during manufacture and caused damage to some of the products.

I hope this all makes sense! :)

12. Mr.Science - May 31, 2010

Thanks for clearing that up for me I understand now.

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