If men didn’t give much thought to birth control in the past, that changed in 1995 with Seinfeld’s episode titled “The Sponge.” The show highlighted not only the fact that men are so often clueless as to their long-term partner’s choice of contraception, but also showed the devastation that can transpire when certain contraceptive devices go off the market. In this instance, the device in question was “the sponge”, beloved by women around the world, including Elaine and George’s girlfriend, Susan. But when the sponge is taken off the market, it becomes a race to stock up, to fill cupboards with a stockpile. Of course, when something is in limited supply, who you choose to use it with becomes a high-stakes gamble. Potential suitors are no longer flings to be assessed on good looks and charm, instead, they have to be deemed “sponge worthy.”
Regardless of Seinfeld’s numerous take on the challenges of birth control, the episode does highlight a curious fact: despite the advances of science, this area remains one confined to women. Now, it’s hoped that science can help lift the burden from women, who are often left to front not only the costs of birth control, but also the unwanted and uncomfortable side effects, that can range from cramps to prolonged bleeding and pain.
Scientists have developed a male oral contraceptive that was 99 per cent effective in mice and caused no observable side effects. The drug is expected to enter human trials by the end of this year with the findings presented at the American Chemical Society’s spring meeting as researchers look to expand birth control options and responsibilities for men.
According to Md Abdullah Al Noman, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota who will present the findings, “Multiple studies showed that men are interested in sharing the responsibility of birth control with their partners,” but have been limited by the sole options available of condoms or vasectomies, with the latter being expensive and not always successful.
To develop a non-hormonal drug for males, Noman targeted a protein called “retinoid acid receptor (RAR) alpha” which plays an important role in cell growth, sperm formation and embryo development. Lab experiments have shown that mice without the gene that creates RAR-alpha are sterile. Scientists were able to develop a compound that blocks the action of RAR-alpha, creating the chemical known as YCT529.
When this chemical was administered to male mice orally for four weeks, it drastically reduced sperm counts and was 99 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy in a mating trial. Things like weight, appetitive and activity were also monitored, with researchers finding no apparent adverse impacts. Just four to six weeks after being taken off the drug, the mice could sire pups once again.
It’s an incredible breakthrough in science and already scientists are predicting a timeline to market the drug which could be in five years or under.
If you never gave much thought to your partner’s birth control, perhaps now you should. As Glamour reports, “Earlier this year (2021), a petition was launched to demand better pain relief for those undergoing intrauterine device (IUD) insertion and removal procedures. In addition to highlighting a disturbing issue surrounding medical perceptions of women’s pain, it also showed what people with uteruses are expected to endure…Just to avoid unwanted pregnancies.”
There’s a growing sense of urgency to relieve women of the burden of birth control and see the male contraceptive pill become a reality. After receiving a $US1.7 million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers at the University of Dundee are now aiming to develop the first safe and effective male contraceptive drug.
As Chris Barratt, Professor of Reproductive Medicine in the University of Dundee’s School of Medicine, told Glamour: “There has been no significant change in the field of male contraception since the development of the condom. This means that much of the burden of protecting against unwanted pregnancies continues to fall upon women. We hope to address that inequality and we have already made progress, thanks to our previous round of funding received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”
Professor Barratt added, “By the end of this two-year period, we would like to have identified a high-quality compound that we can progress to the first stages of drug development. That would be a significant step forward for the field and could potentially be the key that unlocks a new era in male contraception.”