Researchers at the University of Wollongong have been given $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build a better condom.
Biomedical engineer Dr Robert Gorkin received one of 52 biannual grants offered worldwide to build the "next generation condom" with the brief that it should "increase sensation" and "significantly preserves or enhances pleasure".
And while it sounds like it's just for fun, the logic behind the Gates Foundation grant is that if it feels good, men are more likely to wear one, thus improving birth control and reducing the spread of sexual diseases, two key problems in developing nations.
The Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative has funded 11 condom projects, including US team developing an air-infused female condom that could be faster and easier to insert. Depending on the project's success, Dr Gorkin is now in line for a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.
The Wollongong initiative is also good news for people with a latex allergy, because Dr Gorkin and his team are working on a replacement for latex condoms using new materials called tough hydrogels.
Hydrogels can be tailored to feel, look and act more like natural skin tissue, as well as being engineered with functions such as self-lubrication, topical drug delivery and biodegradability. They already have a range of applications, from contact lenses to food products.
Dr Gorkin leads a team that includes polymer scientist Dr Sina Naficy and molecular microbiologist Dr Jason McArthur.
“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding has enabled us to explore new applications of our materials research that could make a genuine impact on the health and wellbeing of people worldwide," he said.
To receive funding, Dr Gorkin and other Grand Challenges Explorations Round 12 winners demonstrated in a two-page online application a bold idea in one of five critical global heath and development topic areas that included agriculture development, behavior change and looking into animal and human
Part of the challenge is getting blokes to wear them, especially in countries where it's not a normal part of sexual health.
“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 dialogue 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.
“Melinda Gates said ‘the delivery is every bit as important as the science’. We totally agree”.
Other projects funded in this latest round by the Gates Foundation includes human-scented "trojan cows" that can divert biting insects, such as malaria-infected mosquitos, away from people. A US team has created a “cologne” that would alter the scent of livestock to mimic humans.
Now watch Dr Gorkin and his team explain how hydrogels work.