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Reinventing The Condom With Easy-On Tabs And Beef Tendon

One experimental condom has tabs on either side so it's easier to put on in the dark.
Courtesy of California Family Health Council
One experimental condom has tabs on either side so it's easier to put on in the dark.

When you hear the term "next-generation condom," beef tendon probably isn't the first thing that pops into your mind.

But a condom made from the cow part is one of 11 ideas to win $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its reinvent-the-condom competition.

Another winning proposal uses a material that shrinks when it warms up on the body so it provides a perfect fit. Yet another team combined opening the condom package with application — in a single quick motion — so there's no more fumbling in the dark.

Back in March, the Gates Foundation challenged scientists to design a condom that men or women would actually want to use. The goal was to develop "new condoms that significantly preserve or enhance pleasure," according to the foundation's website.

The motivation is simple. The Gates Foundation is one of the biggest supporters of global health (and a funder of NPR). It figures that if more couples use condoms, they're less likely to transmit viruses like HIV or end up with unwanted pregnancies.

The foundation received more than 800 entries for the condom challenge. It announced the 11 winning proposals on Wednesday.

For the next-generation condom, it's all about being thin and strong.

Studies have found that most men prefer a condom that they don't notice, says chemical engineer Mark McGlothlin of Apex Medical Technologies Inc. in San Diego. But it still needs to be tough enough so it doesn't break or allow pathogens to pass through.

"Current condoms always have a plastic feeling," McGlothlin tells Shots. "We wanted to make a condom you don't feel when you have intercourse."

Beef tendons or fish scraps provide the starting material for a condom that feels like moist skin.
/ Courtesy of Apex Medical Technologies Inc.
Courtesy of Apex Medical Technologies Inc.
Beef tendons or fish scraps provide the starting material for a condom that feels like moist skin.

To do that, McGlothlin has invented a condom made out of the same material in animal tendons and ligaments: long fibers of protein, called collagen.

"We take raw collagen from beef tendons or fish scraps, and gingerly separate out the fibers," he says. "We form it into a condom ... and when it dries down, it looks like sausage casing."

The result, he says, is a material that almost feels like wet skin. "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."

Of course, condoms also have to fit right to work. So Ron Frezieres and his team at the California Family Health Council have developed a condom that he hopes will be more comfortable and less noticeable for men.

To that end, they've redesigned the standard latex condom. "A quarter of men say they're too tight," he tells Shots. "Our material clings to the penis so it's not as restrictive."

His design also improves the application of the condom, or "donning," as the industry calls it. Instead of rolling on, Frezieres' condom has two tabs on either side that allow men to pull the condom on like a sock over a foot.

A team in South Africa stuck to the traditional roll-on method, but they've made it faster and easier. The Pronto Condom Applicator cracks the package open at the center. The condom slides on without ever leaving the foil.

Of course, all of these ideas are in the early stage of development. Inventors will still have to develop working prototypes and test them before they can be produced for public use.

The competition is part of the foundation's Grand Challenges Explorations. The goal is to give scientists money to explore quirky ideas that sound a bit crazy, but if they actually pan out could have a huge impact on global health.

The winning groups of the condom competition have 18 months to show that their design can be easily manufactured, and that the device could be safe and effective.

Then each group can apply for a $1 million grant to scale up production and do rigorous clinical trials.

Who knows, maybe in five years you'll be able to pick up a beef tendon condom at your local CVS. Sounds so appealing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.