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Next-generation condom that feels like skin comes closer

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Nicky Phillips

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A new condom

Biomedical engineer Dr Robert Gorkin and polymer scientist Dr Sina Naficy from University of Wollongong demonstrate a tough Hydrogel material that they are developing for use in manufacturing condoms.

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Many strange things take place in the name of science. For biomedical engineer Robert Gorkin that meant a trip to a sex shop.

In his endeavour to design the next generation of condoms to replace latex versions with a material that feels like skin, the University of Wollongong researcher needed a mould for his prototype.

“I had to go into a sex shop and talk to the owner about the different types of dildos that could withstand certain temperatures and other things,” he said.

Robert Gorkin, left, and Sina Naficy demonstrate the new latex-replacement they are triallng for condoms.

Robert Gorkin, left, and Sina Naficy demonstrate the new latex-replacement they are triallng for condoms. Photo: Tony Walters

When the owner gave Dr Gorkin a puzzled look, the engineer assured him the purchase was for “science”.

“He was like, ‘sure buddy, I hear it all’,” said Dr Gorkin.

But the adventure paid off. On Wednesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the University of Wollongong researcher and his team $100,000 to further develop their design as part of an initiative to encourage bold ideas for global health problems.

Dr Gorkin hopes the new design condoms will give couples another option to control conception and reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, espcially in countries like sub-Sahara Africa.

The team’s condoms will be made of a material known as tough hydrogels, a network of long-chain polymers embedded with water, that are super strong but remarkably elastic. 

“You can think of hydrogels as a wet, soft, squishy material very similar to [your body’s] tissue,” said team member and materials engineer, Sina Naficy.

The material’s skin-like feel is what gives it an edge over current condoms made of latex.

“One of the problems with condoms in general is the perceived lack of sensation,” Dr Gorkin said.

Regardless of whether the plunge in pleasure men associate with condom wear is real or imagined, it has a significant effect on a man's choice to use them or not, he said.

“We need to design condoms that men want to use because they increase sexual pleasure,” he said.

If his new materials could offer more skin-like sensation, it could increase their uptake, said Dr Gorkin.

The networked structure of the material also means lubricants and drugs can be integrated into the condom. The new material will also be biodegradable and avoid the issue of latex allergies, which about 5 to 10 per cent of the population have.

Hydrogels are used in contact lenses and are being studied for use in wearable and implantable bionics, said Dr Gorkin.

With the Gates Foundation money, the group will test different formulations of hydrogels to design condoms with the right amount of elasticity but the correct mechanical properties to prevent breakage.

They will also need to confirm the materials are safe, that they prevent pregnancy and stop the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr Gorkin said the reasons people avoided condoms differed among cultures, and changing people's perceptions would require talking to users about their needs and wants to try to  incorporate those things into the design. 

"We are trying to be realistic about the project and it involves an open and frank discussion about wants and needs in this area," he said.

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