$130,000 grant to tackle the challenges of female contraceptive drug discovery

Dr Hayley Dickinson

Hudson Institute of Medical Research scientists will investigate whether a menstruating species of desert rodent responds to ‘the pill’ in the same way that women do, in a project that will lay the foundation for accelerating the discovery of new safe and effective female contraceptives.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded an AU$130,000 (US$100,000) Grand Challenges Exploration Grant to Dr Hayley Dickinson’s team in The Ritchie Centre with Associate Professor Peter Temple-Smith from Monash University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology to investigate how spiny mice respond to contraceptives.

“In this study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we will look to validate whether the spiny mouse is a viable preclinical model for screening new contraceptive drugs,” Dr Dickinson, head of the Embryology and Placental Biology Group, said.

“For years, Gates Foundation initiatives have helped to develop new contraceptives, but what has been missing is an appropriate preclinical model to screen their effectiveness. Our proof of concept study will pave the way for testing new contraceptives that will benefit the reproductive health and wellbeing of women and girls in all parts of the world.”

Currently, the most common hormonal contraceptive used by women is the combination oral contraceptive ‘pill’, which contains oestrogen and progesterone. Side effects are common and can include breakthrough or irregular bleeding, low libido and anxiety.

“Establishing how the spiny mouse responds to the pill, and whether this mirrors responses in women, will determine whether this animal can aid discovery of safe and effective female contraceptives with fewer side effects in the future,” Dr Dickinson said.

In 2015, Dr Dickinson’s team made the surprising discovery that spiny mice, native to the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, have a period. Previously, the scientific consensus was that no rodent species menstruated.

“Our discovery has the potential to revolutionise research in women’s reproductive health,” Dr Dickinson said.

Dr Dickinson’s team showed that the menstrual cycle in the spiny mouse is remarkably like a woman’s cycle. Spiny mice even seem to experience pre-menstrual symptoms.

“Spiny mice bleed for 2-3 of the 9 days of their menstrual cycle. Some females have heavy bleeds and some have light bleeds. This natural variability is just like women. Spiny mice also exhibit anxiety-like behaviours during their menstrual cycle that mimic the timing of premenstrual tension in women,” she said.

Based on what they have learned so far, the team expects spiny mice will respond to the contraceptive pill in a similar way to humans.

“According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 225 million women in developing countries would like to delay or stop childbearing but are unable to. They lack access to contraceptives and family planning information,” Dr Dickinson said.

“We are delighted to have the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help address the challenge of getting appropriate contraceptives to women who need them.”

Team: Dr Hayley Dickinson, Associate Professor Peter Temple-Smith

Contact us

Hudson Institute communications
t: +61 3 8572 2697
e: communications@hudson.org.au