It has been long talked about, but a contraceptive male pill is at last on the horizon, and it won’t affect either male performance or desire. This is the breakthrough in research carried out at Monash University in Melbourne, where scientists have been testing their male pill on mice.
In a similar model to the male vasectomy, where the ejaculation fluid does not contain sperm, the male pill blocks two key proteins. Instead of trying to tackle men’s hormones or kill off the sperm, the method is far less likely to provoke nasty side effects. Nor does it affect libido. The prospect of an active sex life without the risk of getting a woman pregnant is the ultimate goal with this prospect of a “chemical snip.”
Dr Sabatino Ventura heads up the team and has spoken about his findings. These have recently been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He is pleased to have developed a technique that does not render sperm dysfunctional, which has longer-term implications for potential offspring. Likewise, the hormonal strategies that have been focused on in the past, he noted, produced negative sexual side effects. Not many, if indeed any, men would be keen on taking a pill which was going to slacken their virility. Dr Sabatino called these sort of side effects “intolerable.”
Stopping sperm from getting into the ejaculate is now feasible in a reversible way. The pill, unlike a full-scale vasectomy, which cuts the vas deferens works by keeping the sperm in “storage.” Sperm are already stored in the epididymus in the testicles, and released at the point of male orgasm.
With the mice experiment, the sperm remained in the vas deferens and were unaffected by the drugs used to alter their DNA. The sterility is not permanent though, and can be reversed. The mice were 100% infertile during the experiment, but later, their sperm was used to produce perfectly healthy baby mice. The man would simply have to stop taking the pill if he wanted to go on to have sex for reproduction.
Of the two drugs required to mimic this in men, one is pharmacologically developed already. It is used in treatment of enlarged benign prostrate. It is coming up with the complementary drug that will now require all the focus. It is not predicted to be an overnight sensation. This work could take a further decade. The receptor they need to block is the P2X1-purinocpetor, but as this is located in the vas deferens area, outside the “blood-testis barrier” it can be targeted by an oral contraceptive.
The senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, Dr Allan Pacey, praised the study so far. “It’s a good idea, they need to get on with it.” He likened it to a “biological vascectomy.”
Risks to blood pressure and volume of ejaculate are two further concerns. The mice showed a slight drop in blood pressure. The female contraceptive pill has never been immune from these sorts of risks. It has been linked to various potentialities such as increased risk of heart attack, blood clotting and stroke. The researchers have realised that “a lack of ejaculate has the potential to be disconcerting” so they will be working on that aspect. The female pill has never been perfect. Some woman have to try numerous brands before they find one that suits them. It has also been blamed for everything from spotty skin to mood swings, headaches, weight gain, and the inevitable pressure to remember to take it.By mimicking the menstrual cycle the female pill has not been accused of affecting femininity. The high hopes for the male pill is that it will not affect masculinity.
Another widely held belief is that women will not trust their male partners to be reliable and to take the pill as directed. Whether this is true or not or just an urban myth has yet to be adequately put to the test. It would certainly widen the options for men in regards to contraception. At present they can only opt to either use a condom or to go for a full vasectomy, a radical step for a healthy young male who may want to father children later in life. The male pill would be designed to be taken on a daily basis, just like the female pill. It seems a sexist stereotype to assume men would be too forgetful to take it, but it is early days to come to any conclusions about that.
It has taken fifty years so far for the male pill to become a viable alternative to the female pill. It has thus acquired a bit of a status quo in family planning, that women take the brunt of the responsibility. The opportunity to share this important task is now closer than ever before. Why has it taken so long?
The male birth control pill has posed a far greater challenge to scientists, as, instead of tackling just one egg per month, they have faced the enormity of 1,500 sperm cells produced per second. Against these odds, the Monash team decided to concentrate their efforts on the method of transport. Trying to block the receptors which cause the muscles to squeeze the fluid out of the testes proved to be detrimental to fertility. However, Ventura surmised that the male body would compromise, by “beefing up” the unblocked receptors. As well as the ongoing research and testing in development to be done, there is probably an invisible hurdle to jump in making men amenable to the concept, psychologically.
The reassuring news that the male pill would not affect sex drive or staying power will doubtless make it appeal more to men. Loss of masculinity is not a pretty prospect for either partner. Sharing the responsibility for unplanned pregnancy is.
By Kate Henderson