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Detecting STIs: Teens believe a color-changing condom is the answer

Sexually transmitted infection-- it's a sensitive topic that many people find difficult to discuss, but a group of teenage boys think they may have found an eye-catching solution.

The so-called "S.T.EYE" condom is a conceptual design that changes color when it comes into contact with an STI such as chlamydia or syphilis.

The idea is the brainchild of Muaz Nawaz, 13, Daanyaal Ali, 14, and Chirag Shah, 14, who attend the Isaac Newton Academy in east London.The team got the idea to create S.T.EYE when they found out what a big problem STIs were in the United Kingdom. "This kind of inspired us to make a condom, as it could save hundreds of thousands of lives," Shah said.

The condom could, in theory, detect an infection both in the wearer and his partner. "People find it embarrassing to go to the clinic so this makes sure that their privacy is maintained," although they would still have to go to the clinic for treatment, Ali said.

Once in contact with an STI, antibodies in the condom would recognize the virus or bacteria and cause the condom to change color. The exact shade would depend on the STI, because reaction times vary. The condom could also have an intermediate layer that includes reactants to test for syphilis, chlamydia, herpes and genital warts.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 million people acquire a sexually transmitted infection every day. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom says chlamydia is the most common STI and is easily passed on during sex.

The idea won an award in the future of health category at the TeenTech Awards, which encourage teenagers to explore science, engineering and technology. The boys won £1,000 ($1,568) and have been invited to Buckingham Palace along with the other category winners by the awards' patron, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

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The condoms are still at the concept stage but the developers have been approached by a condom manufacturer that believes it can make their idea a reality. "We really want to make this a realistic thing, but we understand that it is not the easiest thing in the world to do," Nawaz said.

"With today's molecular technology, it is quite possible," said Dr. Ward Cates, distinguished scientist and professor emeritus at fhi360, a nonprofit "human development" organization. "It would be quite sophisticated and my guess is quite costly," he said, adding that it might be too expensive to make condoms that detect more than one STI.

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"Anything that would get youth to wear condoms, I am for," said Cates, who was not involved in developing or judging the idea. Color-changing condoms could promote use because they are novel, and also because teens want to know their infection status, Cates said.

Although it might be unrealistic to think people would stop in the heat of the moment if the condom changed color, the condom would be on and hopefully prevent the spread of disease, Cates said.

"As a public health person, I applaud their creativity and willingness to transfer innovation to a world that usually doesn't have much consideration in that age group," Cates said.

Some people took to Twitter to offer praise, as well as questions.

Other winning proposals included an e-water tap for Africa, which was also programmed by the young designers, sunglasses to monitor epilepsy and a guitar with never-ending strings.

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