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Other than adding flavors and colors, it’s been nearly 50 years since a major advancement in the design of condoms. That may have changed October 2018, when Boston University researchers announced the invention of a self-lubricating condom that could have widespread benefits in preventing sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.

A portrait of Mark Grinstaff

Mark Grinstaff described the self-lubricating condom as “quite exciting technology.” Photo by BU Photography

“Preventing the spread of HIV and other diseases is critically important,” says Mark Grinstaff, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of chemistry and a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, coleader of the interdisciplinary research team that announced the new condom design in a paper published October 17, 2018, in the British journal Royal Society Open Science. “That really was the driving force for creating new technology here,” Grinstaff says.

The actual condom has not been tested yet. What has been done is a touch test with individuals, where they were given three pieces of latex—one a standard, nonlubricated latex condom, one a standard condom with a personal lubricant applied to it, and one the self-lubricated condom developed by Grinstaff’s team.

It was a promising sign, therefore, that 85 percent of study participants who felt and compared the new condom material to latex condoms and condoms wetted by personal lubricant products found that Grinstaff’s was the most slippery to the touch.

“People found that to be an attractive feature,” says Grinstaff, who is also ENG’s Distinguished Professor of Translational Research. “Those in our survey who don’t typically use a condom said they would consider using a condom if it stayed slippery like this.”

Of every 10 participants in the group, 9 indicated that if it were on the market, they would prefer to use the self-lubricating condom over a standard latex version.

To the naked eye, the self-lubricating condom prototype looks like a typical male latex condom. The technological improvement is in the way that it feels to the touch.

comparison between non-coated latex condoms and lubricated condoms

Photo courtesy of Royal Society Open Science

In contrast to the popular silicone-based lubricants found in many condoms, which actually repel moisture and can be tacky and messy, the newly designed condom is coated in polymers that capture moisture from water and bodily fluids and trap those liquids on the condom surface. The result is essentially a continuously self-lubricating condom that could consistently provide a slippery sensation throughout sexual activity for extended lengths of time, without the need to stop and add any artificial lubricant.

It took Grinstaff’s group, which specializes in solving medical problems, more than three years of research and testing nearly 1,000 formulations to find a winning combination of latex and lubrication.

It started back in 2015 with a call for proposals from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was seeking ideas for new technologies that would increase condom usage around the world. The Gates Foundation awarded grants of $100,000 each to 11 researchers, including Ducksoo Kim, a School of Medicine professor of radiology and Boston Medical Center director of interventional radiology, who partnered with Grinstaff to bring the idea of a self-lubricating condom to reality.

“We have a coating on the latex that maintains all the properties of latex,” Grinstaff explains. “It’s durable and strong. It is a coating that when you get a thin layer of moisture on it, it becomes slippery. It’s quite exciting technology.”

Grinstaff says that when the condom news became public October 17, 2018, he did not expect the huge interest it received from the media. “I was just surprised at the interest level, but pleasantly surprised.”

A diagram showing how the condoms are coated in lubrication

The coating scheme comprises polymer entrapment of lubricious PVP within macroinitiator HEA/BP, followed by exposure to light activation and chemical cross-linking among HEA/BP, PVP, and the latex surface. Photo courtesy of Royal Society Open Science

A big reason for the interest could be that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other global health organizations are warning that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are alarmingly on the rise. Nearly 2.3 million STDs were diagnosed in 2017 in the United States, and infections are also rising for syphilis and gonorrhea in certain countries. Additionally, condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when used properly.

So the unveiling of the new condom design couldn’t come at a better time. Condoms are the only form of contraception that effectively protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), yet many people forgo using them. The World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and the Gates Foundation have determined that poor lubrication on condoms is a major factor in why they are not used more.

The persistent slick feel of the self-lubricating condom could help people overcome some of the biggest self-reported turnoffs about using condoms, which include complaints that traditional latex condoms create too much friction, reducing pleasure and causing discomfort to sensitive skin.

“Given that silicone lubricants and oils are widely used,” Grinstaff says, “we’d like to think a self-lubricating condom would be widely used.”

Portrait of Stacy Chin

Stacy Chin (GRS’17) is CEO of HydroGlyde Coatings, which will produce the first new condoms. Photo by BU Photography

That’s important news to Stacy Chin’s ears. Chin (GRS’17) is a coauthor on the study and CEO of start-up HydroGlyde Coatings, a BU spin-off that will help bring the coated condoms to consumers.

“Poor lubrication encourages condom misusage,” Chin says. They knew if they could “improve comfort for users, we can enable them to wear condoms more consistently and appropriately, preventing STIs and unplanned pregnancies.”

Chin says that HydroGlyde Coatings—which has already raised $1.4 million in funding from the NIH Small Business Innovation Research program, the Massachusetts Tech Transfer Center, and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center—will hopefully have its first product, a self-lubricating male latex-based condom, on the market in two years.

If and when the condom is ready for mass production, it would most likely be in Southeast Asia, the researchers say, because countries there are the leading growers of the rubber trees that produce latex for gloves, condoms, and other products.

The last significant advancement in condom technology was the advancement of the lubricant that’s now in 99 percent of condoms. “There really hasn’t been an advance since then,” Grinstaff says. “Glow-in-the dark condoms and flavored condoms are clever gimmicks that don’t help performance. I think we can do better.”