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Gates Foundation funds 11 next-generation condoms

The Grand Challenges in Global Health program announced funding for 11 projects that could potentially become the next iteration of the male condom.

The approved ideas received $100,000 each. If successful, the teams can receive up to $1 million to continue their research.

“Quite simply, condoms save lives but new thinking is needed to ensure that men and women around the world are using them consistently and correctly to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections,” the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is funding the initiative, said in a press release. “These projects are working to improve uptake and regular use of male and female condoms by developing new condoms that significantly preserve or enhance pleasure and by developing better packaging or designs that are easier to properly use.”

Back in March, the Foundation offered the cash incentive to anyone who could come up with an idea for a better condom. The nonprofit noted that 750 million people currently used condoms, and about 15 billion units are sold each year.

However, because condoms are perceived to take away from the sexual experience, many people opt not to use them. In addition, condoms can easily be used incorrectly. This dangerous behavior not only may increase the spread of sexually transmitted infections, but can put people at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS.

"The idea of a condom that men would prefer to no condom is a revolutionary idea, but we know more today about sexual function than at any time in the past, and advances in relevant disciplines such as neuroscience, vascular biology, urology, reproductive biology, materials science, and other fields can contribute to new and unconventional approaches," the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote on its blog, Impatient Optimist.

According to the New York Times, the project received 812 applications, with ideas ranging from how to create thinner, stronger condoms to prophylactics that could be put on in low light situations.

The 11 funded projects are:

  • An enhanced condom using nanomaterials: This condom is made of elastic composite materials, including a crystallized form of carbon called graphene. Since graphene is very strong, the condom would be virtually unbreakable. Also, graphene conducts heat, which might contribute to the sexual experience.
  • Dynamic, universal fit, low cost condom: This is a universal size condom that would tighten on the penis during sex due to the materials used, reducing the chance that semen could seep out while making it more pleasurable for the wearer.
  • Engineering a biologically inspired condom: The polymers used to make this condom are similar to mucosal tissue and may improve sensation.
  • Graphene-based polymer composites for high heat transfer, improved sensitivity and drug delivery: This condom also uses graphene, but will also include drugs and other compounds that will help prevent sexually transmitted infections.
  • Project rapidom: This product is a condom applicator that has an “easy, fail-safe” design. The tool allows the condom user to put on the prophylactic with one motion, minimizing the time and effort needed to put on the condom during sex.

    Video of the device can be seen below:

  • Super-hydrophilic nanoparticle condom coating: This condom’s is made from tiny polymers that allow a thin layer of water to cover the surface. This potentially could reduce friction and breakage.
  • Condom applicator pack (CAP): This is a packaged condom and applicator duo that would make putting on a condom the wrong way virtually impossible.
  • Ultra sheer "wrapping" condom with superior strength: This non-toxic, hypoallergenic, plastic-based condom wraps and clings to the penis instead of working like a sheath. The team is working with an existing polyethylene condom manufacturer at Columbia University to improve lubrication and to create two different applicators for the product.
  • Ultra-sensitive reconstituted collagen condom: This condom uses collagen fibers from bovine tendons or fish skin for a more realistic-feeling prophylactic that does not tear. The creators explained to NPR that when the raw collagen dries, it turns into a product that looks like "sausage casing."

    "It's a totally different sensation than a latex condom. It's like rubbing your hand on a real leather car seat versus one with fake leather. The fake fabric -- and the latex -- just feels bad," chemical engineer Mark McGlothlin of Apex Medical Technologies, Inc., told NPR.

  • Ultra-sensory condoms based on new superelastomer technology: These condoms are made from very elastic polymers that are thinner and softer than what is currently on the market.
  • Ultrathin adaptable condoms for enhanced sensitivity: These condoms utilize “shape-memory material” that adapts to certain temperatures. In this case, when the condom senses human body temperature, it will become thicker and stronger. It will also have antimicrobial molecules to stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections.  

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