A decade ago, Elizabeth Summers' options for birth control suddenly narrowed. Doctors diagnosed her with Factor V Leiden, a rare genetic disorder, after discovering blood clots in her lungs. The condition increases the risk of clotting, so physicians told Summers to stay away from the pill and other hormone-laden contraceptives. "Modern medicine has generally failed to provide me with an effective and convenient option," she says.
But new birth control options are emerging for women like Summers. These alternatives promise to provide more choices to women who can't ingest hormones or don't want to suffer their unpleasant side effects.
These new products have their own pros and cons. Still, doctors are welcoming new contraceptives following a long drought in innovation. "It's been a long time since we've had something new in the world of contraception," says Heather Irobunda, an obstetrician and gynecologist at NYC Health and Hospitals.
On social media, Irobunda often fields questions about one of these new options, a lubricating gel called Phexxi. San Diego-based Evofem, the company behind Phexxi, has been advertising the product on Hulu and Instagram after the gel was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May 2020. The company's trendy ads target women who feel like condoms diminish the mood, but who also don't want to mess with an IUD or hormones.
Here's how it works: Phexxi is inserted via a tampon-like device up to an hour before sex. The gel regulates vaginal pH — essentially, the acidity levels — in a range that's inhospitable to sperm. It sounds a lot like spermicide, which is also placed in the vagina prior to sex to prevent pregnancy. But spermicide can damage the vagina's cell walls, which can increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
"Not only is innovation needed, but women want a non-hormonal option."
Phexxi isn't without side effects either. The most common one is vaginal burning, according to a late-stage trial. It's also possible to develop a urinary tract infection while using the product. That same study found that during typical use, Phexxi is about 86 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. The efficacy rate is comparable to condoms but lower than birth control pills (91 percent) and significantly lower than an IUD (99 percent).
Phexxi – which comes in a pack of 12 – represents a tiny but growing part of the birth control market. Pharmacies dispensed more than 14,800 packs from April through June this year, a 65 percent increase over the previous quarter, according to data from Evofem.
"We've been able to demonstrate that not only is innovation needed, but women want a non-hormonal option," says Saundra Pelletier, Evofem's CEO.
Beyond contraception, the company is carrying out late-stage tests to gauge Phexxi's effectiveness at preventing the sexually transmitted infections chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Phexxi is inserted via a tampon-like device up to an hour before sex.
A New Pill
The first birth control pill arrived in 1960, combining the hormones estrogen and progestin to stop sperm from joining with an egg, giving women control over their fertility. Subsequent formulations sought to ease side effects, by way of lower amounts of estrogen. But some women still experience headaches and nausea – or more serious complications like blood clots. On social media, women recently noted that birth control pills are much more likely to cause blood clots than Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine that was briefly paused to evaluate the risk of clots in women under age 50. What will it take, they wondered, for safer birth control?
Mithra Pharmaceuticals of Belgium sought to create a gentler pill. In April, the FDA approved Mithra's Nextstellis, which includes a naturally occurring estrogen, the first new estrogen in the U.S. in 50 years. Nextstellis selectively acts on tissues lining the uterus, while other birth control pills have a broader target.
A Phase 3 trial showed a 98 percent efficacy rate. Andrew London, an obstetrician and gynecologist, who practices at several Maryland hospitals, says the results are in line with some other birth control pills. But, he added, early studies indicate that Nextstellis has a lower risk of blood clotting, along with other potential benefits, which additional clinical testing must confirm.
"It's not going to be worse than any other pill. We're hoping it's going to be significantly better," says London.
The estrogen in Nexstellis, called estetrol, was skipped over by the pharmaceutical industry after its discovery in the 1960s. Estetrol circulates between the mother and fetus during pregnancy. Decades later, researchers took a new look, after figuring out how to synthesize estetrol in a lab, as well as produce estetrol from plants.
"That allowed us to really start to investigate the properties and do all this stuff you have to do for any new drug," says Michele Gordon, vice president of marketing in women's health at Mayne Pharma, which licensed Nextstellis.
Bonnie Douglas, who followed the development of Nextstellis as part of a search for better birth control, recently switched to the product. "So far, it's much more tolerable," says Douglas. Previously, the Midwesterner was so desperate to find a contraceptive with fewer side effects that she turned to an online pharmacy to obtain a different birth control pill that had been approved in Canada but not in the U.S.
Even if a contraceptive lands FDA approval, access poses a barrier. Getting insurers to cover new contraceptives can be difficult. For the uninsured, state and federal programs can help, and companies should keep prices in a reasonable range, while offering assistance programs. So says Kelly Blanchard, president of the nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health. "For innovation to have impact, you want to reach as many folks as possible," she says.
In addition, companies developing new contraceptives have struggled to attract venture capital. That's changing, though.
In 2015, Sabrina Johnson founded DARÉ Bioscience around the idea of women's health. She estimated the company would be fully funded in six months, based on her track record in biotech and the demand for novel products.
But it's been difficult to get male investors interested in backing new contraceptives. It took Johnson two and a half years to raise the needed funds, via a reverse merger that took the company public. "There was so much education that was necessary," Johnson says, adding: "The landscape has changed considerably."
Johnson says she would like to think DARÉ had something to do with the shift, along with companies like Organon, a spinout of pharma company Merck that's focused on reproductive health. In surveying the fertility landscape, DARÉ saw limited non-hormonal options. On-demand options – like condoms – can detract from the moment. Copper IUDs must be inserted by a doctor and removed if a woman wants to return to fertility, and this method can have onerous side effects.
So, DARÉ created Ovaprene, a hormone-free device that's designed to be inserted into the vagina monthly by the user. The mesh product acts as a barrier, while releasing a chemical that immobilizes sperm. In an early study, the company reported that Ovaprene prevented almost all sperm from entering the cervical canal. The results, DARÉ believes, indicate high efficacy.
A late-stage study, slated to kick off next year, will be the true judge. Should Ovaprene eventually win regulatory approval, drug giant Bayer will handle commercializing the device.
Other new forms of birth control in development are further out, and that's assuming they perform well in clinical trials. Among them: a once-a-month birth control pill, along with a male version of the birth control pill. The latter is often brought up among women who say it's high time that men take a more proactive role in birth control.
For Summers, her search for a safe and convenient birth control continues. She tried Phexxi, which caused irritation. Still, she's excited that a non-hormonal option now exists. "I'm sure it will work for others," she says.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby