While women have been both ingesting and implanting various contraceptive methods for years, the promise of male birth control in any form is still annoyingly futuristic. Currently, the only male contraceptives that are anywhere near being close to market involve semi-invasive procedures. There's RISUG (Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance)—a polymer contraceptive that's injected into the vas deferens to block sperm, but has only been available to men in India through clinical trials— and Vasalgel. There's also the Bimek SLV, or the "sperm switch." Invented by a German carpenter, the somewhat quirky device can mechanically control sperm through an on/off switch that has to be implanted behind the testicles. The project is currently seeking investors, but most men—including our boyfriends—aren't willing to go to such great lengths; surveys show that men, if given the choice, would rather take a daily pill.
Thankfully for those who aren't too keen on the idea of robotized balls, researchers at the University of Minnesota recently unveiled a promising breakthrough at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego. Led by Dr. Gunda Georg, the team of researchers has been able to isolate a test compound that could build the scaffolding for a male birth control pill.
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"The research on hormonal methods of male birth control involving testosterone has been going on for decades, but nothing has come to market," Georg tells Broadly over the phone. "We're now focusing on non-hormonal approaches."
Because testosterone "doesn't work for up to 20 percent of men, and it can cause side effects, including weight gain and a decrease in 'good' cholesterol," the researchers started exploring other options, according to a press release from Jillian Kyzer, a graduate student working on the project. Specifically, they're looking at how retinoic acid receptors regulate fertility.
"There are three receptors: alpha, beta, gamma," Georg explains. "Studies have been done in animals that have a deficiency in the alpha receptor. These animals are quite healthy and quite normal; they don't really need that receptor for anything other than sperm production. So if you could block that receptor [in humans], pharmacologically, you could induce infertility. Of course, once you stop the treatment, fertility would return normally."
Georg points out that with this method there would potentially be no side effects. "The animal studies were very promising in this regard," she says.
So far, Georg and her team of researchers have started working with an experimental compound from the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb that modifies the alpha receptor in men, though there have been some challenges. "We want to make sure it's only binding to the alpha receptor and not other receptors," which could cause unwanted side effects, Georg says. Another problem is that the compound is not currently very soluble, which means that there's still work that needs to be done before men have a pill that can be ingested orally.
Georg, however, is optimistic that the compound could be ready to test in animals in as little as six months. "Everything indicates that we're on the right track with this new approach," she says.