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Beyond Condoms
Long Dreamed Of, A Birth Control Pill For Men Could Redefine Contraception



October 27, 2003


By Louis Wittig - eCureMe Staff Writer
Physician Reviewed - October 24,2003



It’s perhaps the most anticipated sequel in the history of birth control. Over 40 years ago the FDA approved the country’s first oral contraceptive for women, and in reducing the risk of pregnancy, helped give rise to the free love sixties and swinging seventies. But decades later, at least 3 million women find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. Trying to help reduce shocks like these, scientists have been looking for the holy grail of birth control: a pill for men. Recent research suggests they might be getting close.

Results from a study conducted with 55 male volunteers in Australia has shown that when injected with a certain kind of hormone cocktail, men’s sperm count - as well their ability to get their partner pregnant - drops to zero.



Are Two Pills Better Than One?

When it comes to protecting themselves, men already have a number of options; they can wear condoms, use spermicide, withdraw before they ejaculate or even, if they’re really serious, go for a vasectomy. The trouble is most men aren’t nterested in the methods that are most effective.

Condoms are the most popular choice for men under 34, but can have a failure rate as high as 11% - higher if they’re worn or lubricated improperly. Add to that the fact that half of men feel condoms are too difficult to use, and over three-quarters feel condoms affect their sexual performance. Using spermicidal alone can yield to failure rates as high as 50% and the withdrawal method is more or less a shot in the dark. Vasectomies are ironclad - but they’re also tricky to reverse: very few men under 30 venture to get one.

This leaves all of a couple’s very vulnerable eggs in one basket - the woman’s. With most of the responsibility for preventing pregnancy resting on the female partner, it’s not surprising that many want their men to share the responsibility. A 1997 Kaiser Family Foundation survey noted that 71% of women wish their partners were more involved with choosing and using birth control. Surprisingly, most men - 67% - agreed, wishing they were more involved. Two thirds indicated they would jump at the chance to try a male pill, if one were offered.



Demand and Supply

Finding men to take an oral contraceptive isn’t problem; finding out how to make one has been.

But all over the world men have been trying. In Indonesia, men often drink a special herbal tea before sex, believing it can head off potential pregnancy. Similar claims have been made about a common plant extract. Known to indigenous peoples from Brazil to Africa, gossypol is a yellow pigment that can be squeezed from the roots and seeds of cotton plants. When ingested, the active chemical eats away at tubules in the sperm-generating testicles, leaving the male infertile. In most cases it’s temporary, but a Brazilian study conducted in 2000 revealed that 20% of men who lose their fertility to gossypol don’t ever get it back. Ever more creative, Chinese inventors have developed a small electronic device that, when slipped inside a man’s boxer shorts, delivers an electrical current that renders the wearer sterile for up to a month.

The Western medical establishment has been experimenting with some equally odd methods Scientists have tried to create sperm that are ’blind’; that is, sperm that can’t tell an egg from a uterus wall. They’ve also isolated a protein that effects how well the sperm swims. If they can mutate it, they can effectively cripple the sperm and keep it from swimming to meet the egg.

Until scientists figure out how to effectively handicap individual sperm cells, the best hope for a male pill seems to be hormonal.

The testicles have two roles within the male body; one is to produce sperm, the other is to produce testosterone. Research has found that if a certain amount of testosterone can be injected into a man’s bloodstream, his body will be tricked into thinking it has produced enough of the hormone and will idle both testosterone and sperm production. However, research has also shown there to be significant, negative side effects associated with injecting men with pure testosterone.



Not Coming to a Pharmacy Near You

There is a way around it though, according to the recently concluded Australian study. Scientists involved in that study used a combination of hormones; to testosterone they added progestin - a female hormone. During the study testosterone was implanted under the volunteers’ skin and periodic injections of progestin followed it up. Progestin, found in female birth control pills, suppressed the sperm production. But used alone it would upset men’s hormonal balance and the effect on sperm production might be permanent; the testosterone supplements served to keep the balance.

For the year the volunteers were on the treatment, sperm production plummeted. When they were taken off it, levels returned to normal. Side effects were seen to be fairly minimal.

Despite the breakthrough, it will be a while before men have to remember to take their birth control pill with lunch. Doctors associated with the project say it would take at least five years to make the implant and injection system used in the trials available to the public. Fashioning it into pill form will take another seven to ten.



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