Let’s talk about the science behind a male version of The Pill

When you hear the words “birth control,” you likely think of a four-row packet of little pills. Or perhaps you think of an IUD, or the depo shot. Odds are, whatever you think of is designed for women, and women only. However, thanks to modern-day technology, it’s possible that there’s a male version of the pill on the horizon.

Currently, the only birth control options for men are on opposite ends of the spectrum: condoms or a vasectomy. But if an oral contraceptive becomes available, researchers believe it would vastly affect our society as we know it. “Even if just 5-10% of men used [an oral contraceptive], it would limit population growth,” Ilpo Huhtaniemi, emeritus professor of Reproductive Endocrinology at Imperial College London, told CNN. “There has to be something for men to take responsibility in the same way as women.”

So how would this work? First of all, it would be very different from the female pill — namely, it likely wouldn’t involve hormones. In previous clinical trials, increasing testosterone — which causes the pituitary gland to release less of the hormones that produce sperm — led to a 60 – 90% reduction in fertility, along with various side effects. Huhtaniemi believes that the way to make this pill work is to stop the sperm directly by blocking proteins that are involved in developing them.

What protein would this be? One possibility is calcineuron, which was discovered by Haruhiko Miyata and his colleagues at Osaka University. The protein helps sperm swim and access a female egg. In their study on mice, the mice were found to be infertile when this protein was blocked; one week after the treatments were stopped, the mice were fertile again. “[This] may lead to the development of a reversible male contraceptive,” Miyata wrote in the paper.

However, it’s still at least a decade away due to the complications of blocking a mass quantity of sperm. “The biology is the biggest hurdle. . . at every heartbeat men produce thousands of sperm.”

Another possibility is preventing the process of fertilization directly by blocking one particular filament that helps the sperm stabilize. This was uncovered by John Herr of the University of Virginia and his colleagues. “This is early; it’s more about understanding the mechanism involved in fertilization and how you can block the formation of this filament,” Herr told CNN.

Male birth control isn’t only being worked on in pill form; researchers are also working on an injection called Vasalgel, which involves stopping sperm in their tracks by using a polymer.

“It’s a sticky gel that goes into [the tubes] and basically filters out sperm,” Elaine Lissner, executive director of the Parsemus Foundation — the medical research organization behind Vasalgel — told CNN. “This is a medical device, rather than a drug, making it more possible.”

It’s much like a vasectomy. . . without the procedure. First of all, it’s injected in the same general location that a vasectomy would be made. The backed-up sperm would be reabsorbed into the body, and as of now, researchers believe they can make the process reversible. “Why manipulate the whole body when there’s a small tube that all the sperm swim through?” Lissner told CNN.

Although Vasalgel could be amazing, Huhtaniemi believes the key for male birth control lies in a pill. “We need a pill, that’s the easiest to administer,” he said. “It is feasible, we just need to find the right target. I think there are quite a few men who would take it.”

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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