It’s been more than 50 years since the first oral birth control pill was available to women and, since then, there hasn’t been a similar product on the market for men. However, science is making huge strides toward changing that.
Researchers in the U.K. have developed a compound that temporarily deactivates a protein that puts the “wiggle” into a sperm’s tail, the Telegraph reports. As a result, sperm aren’t able to swim and therefore can’t fertilize a woman’s egg, causing a pregnancy.
“The results are startling — and almost instant. When you take healthy sperm and add our compound, within a few minutes the sperm basically cannot move,” Lead researcher John Howl, PhD, a professor of molecular pharmacology at the University of Wolverhampton in England, said.
Howl tells Yahoo Beauty that he and his colleagues were “very surprised” at many stages of their research. “Sperm are very difficult targets for conventional drugs, so we were delighted to discover that cell penetrating peptides (CPPs) can target different compartments within sperm,” he says. Howl says he was also surprised that they were able to manipulate sperm physiology using bioactive CPPs, molecules that they call bioportides, which they used to influence sperm motility, or ability to move.
Howl and his team haven’t developed a pill yet, but he says “we have both interesting lead compounds and an innovative technology that needs to be further developed in a clinical setting.” Howl says there is “tremendous potential” for male birth control, especially since an estimated 40 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.
His team isn’t the only one working on male birth control. San Francisco Bay Area-based Parsemus Foundation is working on a product called Vasalgel, an injectable barrier that creates a seal in the male vas deferens (the small tube that sperm usually travels through). The gel works like a filter to allow fluids to pass through but not sperm. (Human trials for Vasalgel are expected to begin this year.)
Researchers in Japan have also found protein-blockers that may work in a pill for men. For the study, researchers suppressed the protein calcineurin in mice by using two chemical inhibitors, making the mice temporarily infertile. The male mice with inhibited calcineurin still had sex with female mice, but none of the females became pregnant.
Adam Ramin, MD, a urologic surgeon and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Beauty that the latest discovery is “an interesting concept.” However, he points out, the mechanism that drives the tail of sperm is the same that drives the movements of other bodily cells, such as cilia, hairlike structures that extend from the surface of cells. These cilia exist in our respiratory tract and help expel toxins and chemicals that we accidentally breathe in, and they also help to move things along in our digestive tract.
Urologist David Kaufman, MD, of New York’s Central Park Urology, tells Yahoo Beauty that he doesn’t see any potential concerns about a man’s urologic health based on this method, but he says the time frame for its use “needs to be established very carefully.”
“I can imagine a scenario where sperm are not affected by the medication and one of those ‘gets through,’” he says, noting that the average fertile male has hundreds of millions of sperm that would need to be deactivated.
Ramin says one question is, how specific is this particular protein? “Is it only going to stop the movement of the tail of the sperm, or will it affect other tail movements in our body” such as in cilia?
Nevertheless, he’s confident that scientists will develop a male birth control that’s as effective as the female version, whether it targets the production of sperm or certain functions that sperm need in order to disseminate. “There will be something found in the near future,” he says.