When Seinfeld released the episode “The Sponge,” what was previously an area men gave little attention to became the subject of widespread conversation. The episode highlighted not only men’s cluelessness to their long-term partners’ choice of contraception, but also showed the devastation that occurs when such contraceptives go off the market. Ultimately though, “The Sponge” was an episode that reflected just how significant the burden of contraception is – and that it’s one women have been forced to bear for centuries.
Despite all manner of scientific and medical advances, birth control has remained an area that seems deep-rooted in the past. Sure there are a number of options available to women, but these options are confined to them alone, along with the costs of birth control, and the unwanted and uncomfortable side effects. Finally though, it seems science might have found a solution, or at least invited men to the table.
In what’s being hailed as a major breakthrough in the development of the male contraceptive pill, scientists have now landed on a prototype non-hormonal contraceptive pill that stops sperm from being able to swim. Though it’s only been tested on mice thus far, the pill kept sperm stunned for at least a few hours, which was long enough to stop them reaching the egg. The next experiments will see the pill tested on rabbits before eventually moving to people, but already many are celebrating the news as one that is promising for the future of male contraceptives.
The key difference between this male contraceptive pill and the female contraceptive pill, is that this doesn’t involve any hormones. As scientists suggest, one of the key advantages they are exploring is an option that will not knock out testosterone or cause any male hormone deficiency side effects. Instead, they are targeting the “sperm-swim” switch in a cellular signalling protein called soluble adenylyl cyclase (sAC), with the male pill ultimately inhibiting or blocking sAC.
In early studies of mice funded by the US National Institutes of Health and published in the journal Nature Communications, a single dose of the drug – TDI-11861 – immobilised sperm before, during and after mating. The effect lasted for around three hours, before wearing off completely by 24 hours.
As Professor Allan Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, explained to the BBC: “There is a pressing need for an effective, reversible, oral contraceptive for men and although many different approaches have been tested over the years, none has yet reached the market.”
Pacey added: “The approach described here, to knock out key enzyme in sperm that is critical for sperm movement, is a really novel idea. The fact that it is able to act, and be reversed, so quickly is really quite exciting.”
Should the pill be successful in testing and move onto humans, it would mean men can make conscious, day-by-day decisions regarding their fertility. However, as many have been quick to note, the pill won’t protect from STIs, with condoms needed to be worn for that. As Pacey suggests, “If the trials on mice can be replicated in humans with the same degree of efficacy, then this could well be the male contraceptive approach we have been looking for.”