Meet the ASU Researcher Who's Building a Better Condom

Arizona State University biochemist Shengxi Chen has spent the past few years trying to make safe sex more pleasurable for men.

You're welcome, dudes.

Working at ASU's Biodesign Institute in Tempe, Chen has invented a condom he says is more comfortable to wear and "mimics human skin" while protecting against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

"When men wear normal condoms, they feel something. That's why most don't like that," Chen says. "This new material will make it look like they're wearing nothing. It will feel like the touch of the skin."

The new condom was made possible by Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates, the computer guy. After co-founding Microsoft, Gates apparently got a bit of a, ahem, hard-on for reinventing the condom. 

In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a grant for researchers around the world to "Develop the Next Generation of Condom." The goal: to help prevent the roughly 2 million new HIV infections around the world each year.

"We will be looking for volunteers." — Shengxi Chen, designer of a revolutionary new condom

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Although condoms are highly effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, only about 5 percent of men worldwide say they use them.

"Loss of sensation, either real or perceived, is one of the main reasons men prefer not to wear condoms during intercourse," reads a post on the Foundation's website.

The competition was stiff. Two calls for proposals drew a total of 812 applications. (The competition was open to condoms designed to be worn by either gender, though the male version is overwhelmingly more common, owing to its cheaper cost and, as the Gates Foundation puts it, the "need for negotiation" for its use.)

Chen was one of 22 to receive $100,000 apiece in seed money. The Gates Foundation promised a second infusion of up to $1 million for projects that proved worthy. 

"Because I am a biochemist, I know exactly what the human cell looks like," Chen says. "And I know exactly what the structure of those cells. I thought we could use synthetic material to mimic that same feel."

The problem with the traditional condom? Latex is hydrophobic, meaning that it repels water. Human skin cells, on the other hand, are hydrophobic and hydrophilic — they can absorb and repel water.

Chen developed a material that's softer and more flexible than latex and also responsive to water. Whereas water will bead up on surfaces like rubber, when it comes in contact with the new condom material, it smoothly disperses.

Chen says preliminary tests for strength indicate that when formed into a condom, the substance is almost twice as strong as latex.

"We got a final product that's really much better than the leading condoms on the market," Chen reports. "You feel more smooth and you feel more soft. It's closer to the human cells."
Chen has patented his condom and registered a company, Joys LLC. The next step is testing required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which Chen estimates will take about six months.

Then comes the exciting part: human trials.

For that phase, study participants are sent home to boink with the new condom and then report on their level of satisfaction as well as any side effects. 

"We will be looking for volunteers," Chen says brightly.

Asked whether he has tried on the condom, Chen laughs and, noting that it hasn't yet been approved by the FDA, declines to answer.

"Many people ask that," he says.

Even if all goes well, Chen will need to raise a lot of money in order to manufacture his condoms. He says he hopes to obtain funding through grants and/or investors.

"In two years it could be on the market," he says. "That's the hope. It takes time."
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