The humble condom remains our best defense against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. It is the one device that protects against all risks, is easily transportable, and cheap to produce as well. In places where more expensive options are unavailable, it is already a life-saver.
The problem is many men don’t like wearing them, despite the threat to themselves, and their partners. Studies in the developing world show that cultural factors, misconceptions, and a belief that condoms reduce sensation, all lower rates of use.
"People’s assessment of their own risk is sometimes not realistic," says Stephen Ward, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Sex is a powerful motivator. When you’re talking about reducing the pleasure someone can derive from sex, and you add that to a poorly understood risk, you can see how the desire for better sex wins."
The Gates Foundation is launching a "grand challenge" to find fresh condom concepts. It wants to hear from material scientists, product designers, and sex experts interested in making prophylactics more "user-friendly."
"This is an opportunity for people in all areas of research to think about a problem they might not have thought about before," Ward says. "If we could make something better, we could have a really substantial effect on HIV prevention and unintended pregnancy in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia."
Researchers are developing alternative "multi-purpose prevention devices" like vaginal rings and "co-formulated injectables." But Ward says they’re "years away from deployment into hands of people who need them," and that a better condom could save lives in the interim.
The submission period runs until May 7, but will probably be extended for another six months this fall. Initially, at least, the bar for practicability is not high. Researchers need only fill out a two-page application, and prove the concept works in basic terms. "We’re looking for a couple of experiments to show the idea has legs," Ward says. Winning entries get $100,000 for further development.
Ward and his colleague, Papa Salif Sow, hope to get hundreds of ideas, but there are two they like already.
Researchers at the University of Washington are working on a very fine electrically spun fabric made of nanometer-sized polymer strands that dissolve to release sperm-blocking and anti-HIV drugs. And, Origami, a company in California, is developing a silicone injection-molded condom that it says is easier to put on, and more pleasurable to use.
"Origami are taking an innovative design-centric approach to making condoms with the sensual experience at the forefront, understanding the user preferences of the populations they are testing in," Ward says. "The electro-spun approach is a new technology. The Origami is a good example of a new philosophical approach."
If you have an idea of your own, the Gates Foundation wants to hear from you. The application page is here.