sex ed

Could This Technology Make Condoms Obsolete?

Photo: Ian McKinnell/Getty Images

The shortest route to abstinence is Googling “STD rates in America”: Punch that bad boy into your phone and you’ll have a whole new appreciation for Ciara and Russell Wilson’s arrangement. More than half of all people will have an STD at some point in their lifetime, and there are 19.7 million new STDs contracted in the U.S. every year. The stats are stunning enough to make you want to smack the next guy who claims that condoms don’t fit him.

But while we’re far from living in an STD-free utopia, there are some promising advancements in sexual health on the horizon. “Multi-purpose prevention technologies,” or MPTs, are products that combine protection against pregnancy, HIV, and other STDs — they’re the most promising frontier. Currently the condom is the only true MPT that exists — hormonal birth control, for example, isn’t an MPT because it doesn’t protect against STDs — but several others could hit the market as soon as 2020.

“It’s really exciting to see several MPT candidates now entering Phase I clinical trials, and many more innovative prevention products in the pipeline,” said Bethany Young Holt, the executive director for the Initiative for Multipurpose Prevention Technologies at the Public Health Institute. “But like all drugs in development, it is hard to say exactly when they will be available, as this depends on how they do in the trials.”

With that in mind, here’s what the future of STD prevention might look like.

By 2020, we could have …
The Origami Male Condom: Unlike other latex condoms, the Origami condom comes neatly folded up instead of rolled into a tight ring. This sheathlike design is looser than traditional condoms, allowing it to more easily conform to the natural movements of the body during sex, and creating a more pleasurable experience for both partners. The condom is currently being tested on humans, and “new design advancements” are expected to hit the market as early as late 2015.

By 2025, we could have …
• A vaginal ring that protects against HIV, pregnancy, and herpes: The small, flexible ring would be loaded with the hormone levonorgestrel and the medication Tenofovir. Because it’s a ring, the device could be inserted without a male partner knowing, empowering women to have control over their own sexual health. It’s currently in phase one of clinical trials. 
• A vaginal film that protects against HIV and herpes: Loaded with monoclonal antibodies — antibodies that are made specifically to counteract STD antigens — this film could help protect the 776,000 Americans who contract herpes each year. It’s also in phase one of clinical trials, and could hit the market within the next ten years. 
• A vaginal gel that protects against HIV and herpes: The one percent Tenofovir gel — which must be applied daily — is already in stage-three clinical trials and is currently being tested on patients in South Africa. If it passes FDA muster, it could be on the market even before 2025.

2030 and beyond …
• The hydrogel condom: Say good-bye to latex and hello to “tough hydrogels,” a biomaterial similar to those used in contact lenses — they could feel much more like human skin than regular condoms. A research team at the University of Wollongong is using funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue their work on developing the “next-generation condom.” According to a university press release, “Once we have a material that is strong, safe, and potentially more pleasurable, we will need to move from a situation of ‘having to’ wear a condom to ‘wanting to’ use one.”
• A tablet that protects against HIV and herpes: A quick-dissolving vaginal tablet that’s currently in clinical trials, the Tenofovir tablet could protect against HIV and herpes. Researchers are currently working on a way to make the tablet dissolve faster, reducing discomfort.
• A vaginal gel that protects against basically everything: Polyphenylene carboxymethylene (PPCM for short, because try saying that three times fast) is still in preclinical trials, but it packs a lot of promise: A vaginal gel made from a highly charged polymer, PPCM blocks viruses from attaching to host cells. If testing goes well, it could protect against HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, herpes, HPV, and pregnancy. 

Could This Technology Make Condoms Obsolete?