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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they are developing a monthly birth control pill.

The new contraceptive is made to sit in the stomach and gradually release the birth control drug levonorgestrel over the course of three weeks. The capsule has been tested in pigs, but the researchers are hoping to move to human trials in three to five years, researchers said.

A paper on the research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. MIT professors Robert Langer and Giovanni Traverso were senior authors on the paper; Ameya Kirtane, a senior postdoc at MIT, and Tiffany Hua, a former technical associate at MIT, were the lead authors.

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“It really could change the way people take medications across the board,” Langer said.

The pill uses a long-lasting drug delivery system that Langer and Traverso had previously developed to treat diseases such as malaria.

After the pill is swallowed, the outside capsule dissolves and a star-shaped drug delivery system unfurls. To ensure the pill survives the harsh environment of the human stomach, it is made of polyurethane that can withstand stomach acid, the researchers said.

The MIT researchers are working with Lyndra Therapeutics, a biotech company based in Watertown, to develop the pill.

The testing in pigs shows that the pill can achieve the same concentration of the drug in the bloodstream as taking the daily pill by gradually releasing the drug over time.

After the month is up, the star-shaped system breaks apart at the links holding together the arms to the base and exits the body through the digestive tract.

The creation of a monthly birth control pill would help to increase the effectiveness of the contraceptive, researchers said.

In the United States, about 12 percent of women between 15 and 49 use oral contraceptives. However, 9 percent of women taking the pills become pregnant each year “likely due to people missing or taking medication at the wrong time,” Traverso said.

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A monthly pill could help with patient complance, reducing unintended pregnancies and improving the health of these women, said Deborah Anderson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University’s School of Medicine who was not involved in the study.

“The problem with the daily pill is it’s very effective if taken daily,” she said, and it isn’t as effective if not taken regularly.

“If we take away that uncertainty and just have a once-a-month pill, we can get that [compliance] number back up. . . . Especially for younger underprivileged women, unintended pregnancies can really impact them economically and socially, and it can also affect their health.”

Langer and Traverso also noted some people might opt for the extended-release pill instead of more invasive options like intrauterine devices, which need to be inserted at the doctor’s office.

“There are other systems out there for contraception but typically they require a procedure . . . and really here we’re trying to provide an option that is orally delivered,” Langer said.


Maria Lovato can be reached at maria.lovato@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @maria_lovato99.