Dude, where’s my contraceptive pill?

Why isn’t there an oral contraceptive pill for men yet? Scientists have been telling us for decades that the break-through is just around the corner, just a few more years away, yet we are still only left with the condom, the vasectomy and the withdrawal method when it comes to controlling our reproductive potential. Yes, of course, there’s also abstention, but where’s the fun in that?

When the female contraceptive pill was first introduced 50 years ago, it caused nothing short of a revolution for women’s sexual freedom. It went a long way towards empowering women to take control of and regulate their capacity to have children and had a radically liberating effect on their recreational sex life. Isn’t it time that men, too, enjoyed the freedom of easy-to-use, safe, cheap, effective, non-surgical and reversible contraception?

Bring it on

These days, most people, whether they’re single or in relationships, would agree that birth control, contraception and family planning are issues in which men should be as involved as women. The development of a male contraceptive pill would enable men to share a much greater part of this responsibility than they are able to right now.

Several studies have shown that a considerable proportion of men would be willing to use a contraceptive pill if it was available. In 2000 a survey of 1900 women from South Africa, China, Scotland and Hong Kong, only 2% of participants said that they would not trust their partners to use the male pill.

So what’s the hold-up?

Researchers have worked on numerous hormonal and non-hormonal male birth-control possibilities for decades and while they have made some promising advances, it will probably still take years until a reliable product is ready for public use.

The reasons for the ongoing delays include:

  • A reluctance by pharmaceutical companies to invest in expensive research and development in the absence of a proven and profitable market.
  • Fundamental differences between the reproductive biology of men and women. Not surprisingly it turns out to be much harder to keep a lid on the 1000 sperm cells which the average man produces every second and releases in batches of around 120 million per ejaculation than it is to defuse the single egg a woman generates once a month.

When the first new contraceptive method for guys eventually does hit the market it is most likely to be in the form of a monthly injection or a longer-term skin implant. Other possible options include patches and gels, while a daily pill comparable to the female pill will probably only be available much later.

Several promising possibilities

Testosterone:

Sufficiently high levels of this sex hormone in the blood stream are known to cause male sterility by suppressing sperm production. A 2009 Chinese study involving 1000 men who received monthly testosterone injections for a two year period showed a 95% success rate, which is comparable to the female pill. The men’s sperm count reportedly returned to normal levels once the injections were stopped. A combination of testosterone and progestogen, yet another sex hormone, has also shown promising results.

There are, however, a number of problems with testosterone-based treatments, for example the fact that the hormone is readily digested by the liver before it can act to block sperm production. There are also a number of potential side-effects, including acne, prostate enlargement, weight gain, mood swings, lowered libido and abnormal liver function.

GnIH and androgens:

A newly discovered hormone, called gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH), as well as a group of hormones known as androgens have shown some promise for use in male contraceptives.

Biochemical sperm disablers:

Scientists are searching for safe biochemical methods capable of blocking various proteins which facilitate the maturation and mobility of sperm cells before they are ejaculated.

Dagga:

A compound called endocannabinoid anandamine, which is found in marijuana, has been shown to affect the pH level in the testes, making sperm cells lethargic and rendering their owners temporarily infertile.

Adjudin:

Researchers have discovered that a compound called Adjudin-FSH prevents sperm development in mice. While the process is reversible, it also comes with considerable side-effects, however.

Ultrasound:

Recent work at the University of North Carolina in the USA suggests that a single inexpensive, reversible and non-invasive ultrasound treatment, which affects the seminiferous tubules in the testes where sperm production happens, can provide up to six months of infertility.

(Andrew Luyt, Health24, August 2010)

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