Researchers win Gates Foundation grant to make next generation condoms

A team of researchers from UOW has received Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding to help develop a Next Generation Condom that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use”.

Their team was one of only 52 grants funded worldwide, out of more than 1,700 applications for the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, which covers five diverse project areas ranging from agriculture to healthcare. Initial grants of US$100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

To assist countries where significant social, economic and environmental problems stem from lack of birth control and the spread of STDs, the UOW team will work to develop a replacement for latex condoms using new materials called tough hydrogels.

The advantage of hydrogels is that they can be tailored to feel, look and act more like natural tissue and can be engineered to deliver functionality such as self-lubrication, topical drug delivery, and biodegradability. Hydrogels are also very safe, being found in numerous familiar applications from contact lenses to food products. This work continues to push the boundaries of years of hydrogel development for artificial muscles and implantable bionics at UOW.

Dr. Robert Gorkin leads a team that includes polymer scientist Dr. Sina Naficy and molecular microbiologist Dr. Jason McArthur. Their complementary expertise spans biomedical engineering, materials science, and drug delivery.

He said the team was extremely excited about the incredible opportunity. “The Bill and Melinda Gates support will enable us to explore a new application of our materials research that could improve the lives of many, and that would be incredibly difficult to fund in any other way.”

The team recognises that understanding local cultures and societies and learning how to work within them is going to be a key challenge in designing condoms that are readily adopted.

“It’s really about us challenging our own perceptions, particularly when developing new technologies to be deployed in places like sub-Saharan Africa and southeast  Asia,” Dr. Gorkin said. “We are looking to have dialog with people in those areas to look at social and cultural aspects for design that could be incorporated into eventual prototypes and products.”

“We are also looking at manufacturing, regulation, distribution and other considerations, which will be critical for success in the regions. In a recent TED2014 talk Melinda Gates said ‘the delivery is every bit as important as the science’. We totally agree – the challenge must be tackled holistically – design driven innovation will be imperative for the team.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is one the most recognised philanthropic organizations operating in the world today. The award was funded under the Round 12 Grand Challenges Explorations grants, which foster innovation in global health research.

After applying for the grant, Dr. Gorkin honed the preliminary idea through the training received from the UOW Pitch competition, in which he was the co-winner of the staff category.