Plant chemicals give hope for 'alternative contraceptives'

17 May 2017

Herbs used in folk therapy may make effective alternatives to hormone-based contraceptives, researchers report.

Academics at the University of California, Berkeley have studied chemicals found in two plants, which have long been used in traditional medicine, and discovered that they can block human fertilisation of human eggs.

In testing, chemicals named pristimerin and lupeol stopped fertilisation by preventing human sperm's "power kick" and propelling itself towards and into the woman's egg

The researchers found that the chemicals worked at very low doses and had no side-effects, unlike some hormone-based contraceptives. Accordingly, they are now investigating whether the compounds could potentially be used as an emergency contraceptive, before or after intercourse, or as a permanent contraceptive.

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"Because this two plant compounds block fertilisation at very, very low concentrations - about 10 times lower than levels of levonorgestrel in Plan B - they could be a new generation of emergency contraceptive we nicknamed 'molecular condoms,'" said Assistant Professor Polina Lishko. "If one can use a plant-derived, non-toxic, non-hormonal compound in lesser concentration to prevent fertilisation in the first place, it could potentially be a better option."

Lupeol is found in plants such as mango, dandelion root and aloe vera, while pristimerin is from the tripterygium wilfordii plant, which is also known as the "thunder god vine".

Professor Lishko and her colleagues are now going to test how these chemicals work in primates, whose sperm cells work in a similar way to humans. She is also searching for an inexpensive source of the chemicals, members of a family called triterpenoids, since concentrations in wild plants are too low for cost-effective extraction.

The full study has been published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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