women have long suffered the side effects and responsibility of hormonal contraception. Just last month, a Danish study confirmed many women's long-held suspicions when it revealed a link between hormonal contraception like the pill and depression—though the side effects of hormonal birth control have been documented since its inception. But new research from the University of Edinburgh suggests that men may be able to help to carry the burden of hormonal birth control sooner than previously thought. However, the study was halted due to side effects not entirely dissimilar from what many women using hormonal birth control currently experience.
The study, released this Friday, found that a male contraceptive injection could be almost as effective as the pill, with a success rate of 96 percent. The study recruited 320 men between the ages of 18 and 45. Over the course of 56 weeks, participants received regular injections consisting of two hormones— progestogen, which lowers sperm counts, and testosterone, which reduces the effects of the progestogen (progesterone also reduces testosterone).
While the success rate was extremely high, it still did not reach the 99.9 percent efficiency rate of the female birth control pill.
Finding safe and effective hormonal contraceptive for men isn't a new endeavor and it's been a long time coming. There have been countless attempts at creating a birth control method for men dating back to the 1920s; however, most methods, like calcium channel blockers—which render sperms unable to fertilized eggs and resulted in permanently infertile rats—were never tested on human men. Researchers in China began large scale clinical trials in the 1970s for a male oral contraceptive called Gossypol, derived from a plant believed to reduce male sperm counts. In the late 1990s, the World Health Organization determined the research should be abandoned as it permanently reduced male sperm count in too many participants.
The recent research for this specific type of hormonal male contraceptive, though successful, ended early after twenty men discontinued due to reported side effects. According to the study, "Of these 20, 6 men discontinued only for changes in mood and 6 men discontinued for the following single reasons: acne, pain or panic at first injections, palpitations, hypertension, and erectile dysfunction." The remaining eight men dropped out for reasons related to mood changes.
Despite the study ending a early, researchers still believe this is a victory for the future of contraception. In a press release, researcher Mario Philip Reyes Festin from the World Health Organization said, "The study found it is possible to have a hormonal contraception for men that reduces the risk of unplanned pregnancies in the partners of men who use it."
Speaking to Broadly, author of the study Richard Anderson echoed these statements, saying that despite a long road ahead before ever becoming a commercial product, "it's a great step forward." While the side effects hindered the study, Anderson says, "a lot of people reported the side effects in quite a mild way and not very many people withdrew from the study." So, while there were some concerns, all of them were fairly benign; some participants reported "feeling down."
Ultimately, Anderson says the hope with male birth control is to expand upon the current choices available. "At the end of the day, it's going to be a matter of someone taking it, and if they find the side effects too bad, they're going to stop taking it and look for something else." Anderson says. "It's a matter of trying to improve the option choices so that people find something that works for them."
This also isn't the only promising development in the world of male birth control. According to Anderson, US researchers also have plans to study hormonal birth control using a gel approach. "This would be something the men could do themselves rather than needing to go to a clinic," he says. Also, just last year a private company revealed plans for a "reversible vasectomy" called Vasalgel that aims to work without altering hormone levels.