Ever since the 1950’s, scientists have been trying to come up with a contraceptive for men. But there have been two barriers to success. Firstly: given that men are constantly seeking (and being told to) boost their testosterone to look good, feel good and ‘perform’ both in life and in the bedroom, a sperm-count reducing, testosterone inhibiting product is always going to be a hard sell.
Secondly, while the female pill also has hormonal side effects, due to there only being one egg each month to render infertile (as opposed to men’s constant production of sperm), it has proven simpler to produce an effective contraceptive that doesn’t produce major side effects. And while the female pill involved a painful (and ongoing) course of trial and error to perfect, male contraception has lagged behind, because it is a more difficult task, has received less funding, and receives fewer willing test participants.
While no birth control is perfect (long-term use of female birth control pills could increase one’s risk of blood clots or breast cancer), as NPR science correspondent Rob Stein points out, “With women, you can take advantage of their normal monthly cycle with the birth control pill. There’s nothing equivalent to that in men.” That said, he admits there there is a self interest dynamic at play as well.
“There’s a little bit of a different risk-benefit analysis when it comes to men using a contraceptive. When women use a contraceptive, they’re balancing the risks of the drug against the risks of getting pregnant. And pregnancy itself carries risks. But these are healthy men — they’re not going to suffer any (physical) risks if they get somebody else pregnant.”
During the clinical trials that have been conducted, male birth control has led to Acne, permanent reductions in sperm count, a lower sex drive, depression and in one case, suicide. Or, as one frustrated gent puts it, “All the utility of a condom combined with the benefits of old age.”
These problems are yet to be solved, because most drugs that keep a man’s sperm count low enough to render him infertile also block his testosterone—which is crucial to his physical and mental health. While various attempts have been made to include a testosterone booster in the male contraceptive pill, this is far from a perfect solution.
Enter: The National Research Centre For Bioengineering Drugs & Their Technologies. In a recent study, published yesterday in the journal ACS Nano, they explain how they developed a heat sensitive formula that can be injected into the vas deferens—the duct that conveys sperm from the testicle to the urethra—effectively blocking the sperm from getting out at all. The sperm then, as they do in men who have had a vasectomy, die and are re-absorbed by the body.
A New, Reversible Male Birth Control Lasts Months and Looks Like a Cocktail – Inverse. (Of course there would be GOLD involved since it’s a MALE contraceptive https://t.co/YMXvAgm2bQ
— Kellie Nicholson (@Kellie_Nich) 31 January 2019
The scientists have called this a “medium term” contraceptive, because—assuming nothing goes wrong—it is 100% reversible, as when a man decides he wants to have kids, all the doctor need do is apply heat to the region, via an infrared-type lamp, to “unblock the pipeline.” Thus far, this form of contraception has only been tested on rats—and researchers say that more research is needed to verify the safety of the materials before it could be considered on humans.
In terms of detail: the pilot study interspersed layers of sperm blocking hydrogel and EDTA acid (a chemical that breaks down the hydrogel and also kills sperm) with layers of gold nanoparticles (which heat up when irradiated with near-infrared light), successfully preventing the male rats from impregnating females for more than 2 months, until researchers shone a near-infrared lamp on the rats, mixing then dissolving the layers, allowing the animals to produce offspring.
Science Daily echoed the researcher’s sentiments, calling the experiment promising, but admitting there is still a long way to go before men have access to a safe and reliable method of “medium term” contraception. Or, in the word’s of one frustrated Reddit reader: “I feel like I’ve been reading a different variation on this same story, my whole life.” So cross your fingers, but don’t hold your breath…