Women have a range of choices when it comes to choosing contraception, while men are generally stuck with two, the condom or the rather more drastic, vasectomy. Although there are many ongoing research projects into developing alternative methods of male contraception, their side effects mean as yet, they’re unsuitable for general use. However, scientists think they have finally developed a male contraceptive which temporarily stops sperm production without any adverse effects.
Researchers at the Columbia University in New York, have developed a pill which impairs the male’s ability to use vitamin A, an essential vitamin for sperm production. Dr. Debra Wolgemuth, a professor of genetics and development and of obstetrics and gynecology, picked up on the fact that a drug being tested for skin and inflammatory diseases, also caused changes to the testis. She decided to investigate further to see whether these changes were similar to those caused by vitamin A deficiency.
After testing the drug on male mice, it was found that administering low doses effectively stopped sperm production, but once the drug was no longer being given, sperm production returned almost immediately.
So far, the drug offers several advantages over other projects in the pipeline. For one, it doesn’t contain steroids which can have damaging side-effects such as impotence and cardiovascular disease. And, although the drug inhibits the body’s ability to use vitamin A which is necessary for vision, researchers say it won’t affect sight.
Perhaps, even more importantly for men, tests showed that the drug did not affect levels of the male hormone, testosterone. Changes in testosterone levels can raise the risk of stroke or heart attack as well as leading to a decrease in libido.
Dr. Wolgemuth said: “We have seen no side effects, so far, and our mice have been mating quite happily.”
Testing is very much in the early stages and there are still many more questions to be answered. For example, it isn’t known how often such a pill would have to be taken. Early indications imply it would be once a day as with women, but scientists may develop a stronger version which could be taken once a month.
According to Dr Wendy Chung, who is also working on the development of the pill, “An additional benefit of our compound is that it can be taken orally as a pill, avoiding the injection process. It also appears to have a very rapid effect on sperm production and an even more rapid recovery when fertility is desired.”
Although women may have their doubts as to whether their partner will remember to take a daily pill, it seems for men, popping a pill may be preferable to an injection. Apparently, in another trial involving a monthly hormonal contraceptive injection for men, some 30 percent of participants had dropped out by the final treatment.
With limited options available for male contraception, a pill for men would be welcome news for couples. As well as providing more choice, it will enable both partners equal opportunity to take responsibility for birth control. It now remains to be seen whether studies on humans show as much promise as those on mice.