Scientists have announced that they think a revolutionary new male contraceptive pill may be on the horizon. But just how close is the pill to being on the market?
Australian and British researchers have announced they are now one step closer to creating a safe and reliable male contraceptive pill after they managed to identify two proteins that they believe they can block in order to prevent the launch of sperm cells.
Importantly, the tests, which were done on specially engineered mice (more on that below), showed that the pills did not appear to reduce sex drive or have any substantial health drawbacks. What’s more, one of the proteins is already targeted by existing medications for prostate enlargement and high blood pressure, meaning that at least part of the work is already done in terms of human testing.
The research is published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Why is Producing a Male Fertility Pill so Difficult?
There are several reasons why a male fertility pill may be beneficial, not just to families as a whole but to women in particular. That’s because a male fertility pill would take the onus off women and make the responsibility for fertility health and management much more even. It also would neatly eschew religious conservative objections to the combined contraceptive pill, namely that the pill increases the chances of miscarriage — something that is frequently trotted but isn’t given its proper context that the increase, like the increase for certain cancers, is only slight.
Preventing conception in women is relatively straightforward, but stopping sperm has proved more difficult. It only takes one still intact sperm to reach its goal, and hormonal treatments so far have been unable to render all sperm impotent. There’s also the issue of future offspring. Manipulating sperm carries certain risks and scientists want to make sure that there is no impact on future children.
There are of course additional factors, like ensuring a minimum impact on a man’s sex drive and making sure that the effects of the pill are easily reversible.
All these factors have meant that the male pill has so far remained out of reach — but the new approach is different. Due to the fact that it only suppresses key proteins that are used to trigger sperm release, it is roughly analogous to the female pill. Its effects on the body are much more narrow and would end shortly after a man stopped taking the pill.
All that said, tests so far have only been done in genetically modified mice that were specifically reared for proving this concept. While the results are promising, the problem here is the same as all non-human tests: there’s no guarantee that the effects will translate to humans. That means that there are still significant milestones to be met, not least of them being human trials, before the pill could conceivably be on the market.
It’s also worth noting that the male contraceptive pill is one scientists have worked on for decades and, while often promising in the animal testing stage (which has many ethical problems in and of itself) it has so far failed to emerge as viable for human use.
As Vice details, there’s one other big barrier to production: the fact that Big Pharma doesn’t really like the idea. The reasons for that aren’t to do with demand. Regularly, polls find that a majority of men across several different countries say they would be interested in taking the pill to lessen the burden on their female partners and give them greater control over their reproductive health.
However, a male pill would require something that a female pill would not: a guarantee that the male pill will keep working well into a man’s elderly years, an issue that women do not face because their reproductive capabilities usually end at mid-life. This issue seems to undercut the economic promise of the product.
Together, all this could mean that we don’t see a male contraceptive pill for some time yet. We’re talking years, if not a decade or more.
Still, there are reasons to continue to support non-animal research into the male contraceptive pill.
Women’s Health Choices Could be Improved by the Male Contraceptive Pill
There are significant issues with the female contraceptive pill. In addition to those mentioned above, hormonal pills can lead to weight gain, mood problems, sickness, acne and more. For the very unfortunate, the pill could also increase a woman’s risk of high blood pressure, blood clots, strokes, heart attacks and certain cancers. The male pill touted above wouldn’t carry these side-effects, making it an attractive prospect.
There have been concerns that the male contraceptive pill would lead to a power grab with religious conservative lawmakers then tightening restrictions on the female contraceptive pill. While not perfect, the contraceptive pill does offer women autonomy over their reproductive cycles and any such attempt to undermine that should be resisted.
The male contraceptive pill therefore should never be allowed to replace the female pill, but should be the promise of greater family planning options for both genders. When that promise will be fulfilled, however, remains to be seen.
Image credit: Thinkstock.