There’s an App For That

Alys Dunn

Since the Apple app store’s opening in 2008, $60 billion has been made by developers of apps. On New Year’s Day alone this year, $240 million was made by purchasing just apps. With 2.2 million apps to choose from on the Apple store alone, we have come a long way from playing snake on our Nokia’s.

So isn’t it fitting that something as revolutionary as the smartphone app is now being used by an application that is equally as innovative?

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Over fifty years ago the world was transformed by the advent of The Pill. Since its approval in the 1960s for contraceptive use, over 200 million women have taken it. It put women in control of their own lives enabling them to choose if and when they wanted children. For the first time in the history of mankind, women were able to take responsibility for a method of preventing pregnancy.

Swedish particle physicist Dr Elina Berglund has now made an app for that. Natural Cycles is an app that prevents pregnancy by tracking measurements you plug into it; measurements taken by a thermometer you pop into your mouth every morning. Depending on these measurements, the app’s algorithm will tell you if it’s safe to have unprotected sex, termed a ‘green day’, or whether you should take other forms of protection, a ‘red day’. The basic scientific fact behind this is that a woman can only get pregnant on six days of her monthly cycle. So by using an algorithm that takes into account temperature and many other factors like sperm survival, temperature fluctuations and cycle irregularities the app is able to predict the likelihood of becoming pregnant that day. Other factors can also be added into the app to reduce your red days and increase your green, like when you’re having intercourse or by taking LH tests (Luteinising Hormone tests can detect ovulation through urine).

The pearl index is a way of measuring how effective contraceptives are. The closer to zero, the better the contraceptive. Seven women in 100 per year using Natural Cycles as their main contraceptive got pregnant. This equates to a pearl index of seven: very high protection. Compare this to the pill which has a pearl index of nine, which is also very high protection, yet less effective than the app. Plus Natural Cycles has no added hormones which cause the side effects (like certain cancers and deep vein thrombosis) of the contraceptive pill.

The app is still not considered as effective as other contraceptive methods, such as the Nexplanon contraceptive implant, with a Pearl Index measured between 0.00 and 0.4. However, it’s really interesting how the advancement in computer technology and an algorithm written by a particle physicist has now meant that we are now able to control and understand our own bodies better via a mobile app, without harmful side effects.

Male Contraceptive Injection Shows Promise

Josh Bason

Since it was first introduced in 1961, the contraceptive pill has provided an effective family planning solution for millions of couples across the world. Yet to this day, a similar hormonal solution for male contraception has been elusive. A recent clinical trial, however, seems to move us much closer to a breakthrough.

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Image Credit: Flickr

The trial tested a pair of hormonal injections, given every eight weeks, which were designed to lower the sperm count of the participants by temporarily preventing their production of sperm cells. The injections were very effective at preventing pregnancies; among the female partners of the 266 men tested only 4 pregnancies occurred. This shows a success rate of 98.4%, which is comparable with many of the pills currently available for women.

Side effects in studies like this one are common and many participants reported adverse side effects from the jabs. The men most commonly complained of acne, libido changes, and emotional disorders, with 20 of the participants dropping out of the study because of these effects.

During the course of the trials, the researchers had to run their results past two ethics committees to ensure the side effects weren’t so significant that the study should be stopped. While the first of these review boards gave the researchers the all clear to continue, the second panel looked at the same data and ruled that the trial should be halted immediately, citing concerns about mood changes, depression and increased libido.

While it’s difficult to know exactly why the decision was taken to stop the trial, it is reassuring to know that this does not signal the end of research into male contraception. When asked, over 75% of the study’s participants said they were satisfied with the injections as a method of contraception and would be happy to use them if they were commercially available. The study’s authors, too, are optimistic about the future of the method, telling the BBC they are working on combining different levels of the hormones, as well as different ways of delivering them, such as gels.

It’s still difficult to believe that the development of a male contraceptive pill has taken so long. Such pill would alleviate the burden of birth control from women and bring more equality to the realm of family planning. While social factors no doubt play into this continuing inequality, there are simpler biological factors at play too.

The basic mechanism of all contraception is preventing sperm from meeting egg in the uterus. It’s convenient, therefore, that there exists a state in which egg release stops completely: pregnancy. Female contraceptives work by mimicking the hormonal environment of pregnancy, preventing any egg release from the ovaries. Sadly, there are no such natural breaks in sperm production – from its beginnings during puberty, production of the cells continues until death, at the startling rate of 1,000 sperm per second.

It is therefore a significant medical achievement to have reversibly prevented sperm production in the way that this study shows. The challenge now will be to limit the side effects of the treatment and, perhaps more importantly, to find a more cost effective and practical method of delivering it to patients.