The Origami Condom and NIH Ebola funding

One of the NIH funded research projects that has been bandied about with much glee from the right wing, in the wake of Francis Collins' unfortunate assertion about Ebola research and the flatlined NIH budget, is the "Origami Condom". It shows why NIH Director Collins should have known better. The Origami Condom sounds trivial and ridiculous, right? "Origami". hahah. Oooh, "condom". Wait, what are we, 12 year olds?

Rand Paul provides a convenient example.

"We have people who go blithely on TV and say we don't have enough money to study Ebola. Have you seen what the NIH spends money on?" Paul, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, said at a campaign rally for Republican congressional candidates...And the NIH spent $2.4 million for an "Origami condom," said Paul, who said he spared folks in the room an explanation because it was a family audience.

Also because he didn't want to have to explain some simple facts. Such as

- Condom use promotes public health by limiting the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. It can also contribute to reproduction control and choice which also has a host of beneficial effects on individuals and society. There is no way to view this domain as anything other than clearly relevant to public health goals. This is clearly a legitimate area for NIH expenditure from this standpoint.

-Condom use has, for various reasons, a clear failure rate .

"We chronically underestimate how complicated condom use can be," University of Kentucky professor Richard Crosby, who co-authored the study, said in a statement. "It involves the use of a condom, while negotiating the condom use and sex with a partner all at the same time."

Consequently, anything that seeks to improve the proper use of condoms is obviously non-frivolous as a goal.

So, let's head over to NIH RePORTER and check on the NIH awards in support of the Origami Condom. I find three 2-year grants all awarded to Daniel Resnic from 2009-2012. These are all SBIR grants, of the R43 mechanism type. This is important. On the SBIR program:

United States Congress created the SBIR program in 1982 and the STTR program in 1992. These programs congressionally require eligible governmental agencies to set aside a percentage of their extramural budget so that domestic small businesses can engage in R&D that has a strong potential for technology commercialization.

Note, this is a Congressional mandate, not a NIH choice.

Federal agencies with extramural research budgets over $100 million are required to set-aside a certain percentage of their budget to SBIR, and those with research budgets over $1 billion are required to set aside a portion of these funds for STTR. In 2014, the set-aside for SBIR is 2.8% and STTR is 0.40%. The set-aside increases each year through 2017 as a result of the SBIR/STTR Reauthorization Act of 2011.

So we now know that while these Origami Condom funds might have been spent on the commercialization phase of an Ebola vaccine, they would not have been available to all other non-commercial research on Ebola. Were there any Ebola therapies ready for commercialization from 2008-2010 when these applications went in? Only those could have been affected.

The first project is R43 AI084145-01A1:

The purpose of this project is to research, refine and test three prototypes of the origami RAI condom, an RAI (receptive anal intercourse) condom made of a biocompatible, viral-impermeable silicone, which may provide better sensation and less breakage than latex products and provide maximum protection against viral transmission. Three prototypes will be injection-molded and pre-clinically tested for biocompatibility and structural integrity. The origami RAI condom is intended to: 1. Facilitate a pleasurable and safe RAI sexual experience for both partners, 2. Increase the acceptability of condoms among those who practice anal intercourse and are at risk of HIV / STIs, 3. Encourage and increase consistent and correct use for those who practice anal intercourse and 4.Provide a receptive-partner-controlled strategy for HIV prevention.

Seriously, we're done here. This is a defensible project on the basis of its goals, and our aforementioned review of condom contributions to health. The video demo (slightly NSFW) suggests deployment ease and speed is a goal, their website insists that there is nothing on the market other than the traditional rolled latex condom and the project abstract finishes with:

...the primary objective of this Study is to research the feasibility and acceptability of the origami RAI CONDOM: a new biocompatible, viral-impermeable, silicone, anorectally inserted condom, intended to provide an alternative to male latex condoms and increase acceptability and compliance for consumers at risk of HIV/STIs. Its user-friendly design is intended to introduce a pleasurable, more acceptable, receptive- partner-controlled barrier and to encourage its use.

The second award (R43 AI091574) is to develop a female condom and the third award (R43 AI096908) appears to be conceptually a continuation of the first one.

After this, we can of course argue the merits of the particular application, whether it is likely to help this product hit the market, whether it will work.

But what seem inarguable to me is that this is a project that is clearly within the Public Health mission of the NIH, the problem it is addressing is real and there is some possibility this might turn into a useful enhancer for public health.

It is not obviously frivolous.

Of course, rightwing opponents of public research expenditures are traditional bashers of anything having to do with HIV/AIDS. And of course they aren't too hot on contraception either. So I can see where this would be a hotbutton issue for them, given that they find the area of public health to be.....objectionable. They think their answer of "Don't do that" should be completely sufficient. On this they are of course in error.

Additional Note: The PI for the Origami Condom awards, Daniel Resnic, has been accused of being a con man, of misusing Federal grant funds.

a former employee is alleging that Resnic spent grant money for his personal use and acted against rules for clinical studies, having friends try out his condoms and report back.

Obviously either of those things, if true, are serious problems. However they mean absolutely nothing as to the wisdom or frivolity of NIH awarding this SBIR project. Such fraud and misuse can occur with any grantee or for that matter anyone who fulfills any sort of government contract.

Final Note: Journalists, please. I am talking to you. It takes about five minutes of googling to look up the information and less than 1 minute of casual thought to connect the dots. Stop with this silly he-said/she-said, lazy reporting. Put some muscle into it.

18 responses so far

  • Philapodia says:

    This has nothing to do with public health or apparent wastes of taxpayer money. This is solely about scoring cheap political points with the unwashed masses who won't check themselves. And in a 24 hr news cycle, reporters don't think they have the time to actually do something as mundane as "verify" or "research" something. Easier to Cntr-v/Cntr-C Rand Paul's talking points and move on to the next sound-byte. Real journalism is dead.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And it is our role as the people who can sort through such talking points to point out the reality, is it not? Obviously Collins is no good at this....

  • Jo says:

    > Of course, rightwing opponents of public research expenditures are traditional bashers of anything having to do with HIV/AIDS. And of course they aren't too hot on contraception either.

    Hmm, not sure that "receptive anal intercourse" has much to do with contraception. Although, to be fair, rightwing opponents aren't usually too hot on "receptive anal intercourse" either.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The second grant is for a female condom and there is nothing in the first or third grants that suggests the male condom wouldn't work for contraception, even if the primary goal is for STD prevention in MSM populations.

  • Philapodia says:

    I agree that part of our job is to educate the public and point out logical flaw / pure crap. But the question is, how? When our communications apparatus (ie. the media) is doing such a lousy job communicating anything of substance, what avenue do we have? The media and the political class are co-dependent, so how can outside parties point out their flaws without going through the media and the pols making hay about it? (Them scientists are waving around their facts in our faces again! They shouldn't do that since this is a family audience!)

    Perhaps we can hire Karl Rove as a lobbyist for the NIH. A certain subset of the population seem to listen to turd-blossum even though he's known to be full of it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Face to face, Blog, Twotter, Facebook, comments on news accounts, letters to the editor. This is not complicated.

  • GM says:

    drugmonkey October 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm
    Face to face, Blog, Twotter, Facebook, comments on news accounts, letters to the editor. This is not complicated.

    Yes, that's the way.

    But what about the people who do not do those things and instead spend that time writing more papers and grants than you do and end up outcompeting you in the Darwinian struggle for scientific survival?

    I will go as far as saying that at this point in time letters to the editor in major newspaper and appearances on TV by competent scientists will contribute a lot more to society than writing yet another research paper that will be read in full by at most 20 people, a fifth of them being the reviewers, the typesetter and possibly the editor.

    But that's not where the incentives are.

  • DJMH says:

    I don't know about you folks, but if there's something I like doing in the heat of the moment, it's origami. What's their ad pitch? "Too difficult to unroll a condom? Maybe you'd prefer a diagonal squash and a quick sink fold!"

    I mean, if their goal is to make regular condoms look simple, this is a good approach...

    (to be clear, the condoms may be terrifically awesome. but the naming strategy isn't.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Accordion Condom, perhaps? concertina condom for alliteration but who knows what that is, right?

  • drugmonkey says:

    GM- all work and no play makes jack a dull boy?

  • DJMH says:

    Also concertina brings up associations with concertina wire..

    Unfolding Condom? Makes it sound a lot easier.

  • dr24hours says:

    I'm disturbed you're using this space to advocate for making the wages of sin easier to avoid. People who choose to need condoms deserve whatever they get by our refusal to let them have condoms.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    RE: letters to the editor in major newspaper and appearances on TV by competent scientists (GM)

    That would help, but the only times that TV news will squeeze in a scientist is when there is a health crisis or big development in space exploration.

    There are a few fellowships for scientists to get experience working with Congress or non-Science agencies of the government. But you probably have to take a sabbatical and, AFAIK, the participants often return to their previous jobs. Perhaps there should be a graduate degree or certification in communications and policy for scientists (if this exists, I am unaware of it). Congresspeople could then be required to hire their science staff from this pool.

    I know, wishful thinking - sigh.

  • Yola says:

    How about the "Fundom".

  • drugmonkey says:

    I know a handful of scientists, including some well known science-blogger personalities that have spent time in Congressional policy jobs. They do work that is highly appreciated by me, that's for sure. And yes, we always need more of them to infiltrate Congressional offices.

  • Jonathan says:

    After spending 5+years working in science policy and seeing how DC works, and this country by extension, the only conclusion is 'burn it all down.'

  • Philapodia says:

    @Jonathan

    Would you mind elaborating a bit on your experience inside the beltway? This is something that we don't usually see as academic scientists and it would be good to have a first-hand account of how science is viewed/digested by those who set policy. Is there no hope of fixing the system, or could there be ways to positively influence how science is viewed by our government?

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