The quest for male birth control, from vasectomy to condoms to ‘the pill’, Explained

Around 40 per cent of pregnancies in the US are unplanned. This is partially due to social diktats that hold women unfairly responsible for family planning and pregnancy prevention. The contraception options for men have been historically limited — condoms (not 100 per cent reliable), vasectomy (potentially permanent and men are scared to choose this), the withdrawal method (ineffective) and abstinence (not feasible).

male birth control
The quest for male birth control

To avoid unintended pregnancies and control the world population, there has been a growing need for more family planning methods which are not solely dependent on women. In this direction, Nature Communications recently published a path-breaking study which talked about a drug which was able to immobilise the sperm quickly and temporarily in male mice. The discovery was called a “game-changer” and could pave the path for the much-awaited male contraceptive pill and finally can let men share equal responsibility with women on the issue of birth control.

The journey so far – Condoms, Conventional vasectomy, No-scalpel vasectomy

Among the most commonly used options for birth control are condoms. Although condoms generally stop the fertilisation of eggs by restricting the semen from entering the vaginal canal, it carries the risk of ripping, or slipping off if not worn correctly. The condoms also carry an expiration date and can get damaged by light and heat. During use, a dried-out, old condom is more likely to tear, while those using latex condoms also face the risk of latex allergy. 

Conventional vasectomy, which is also called male sterilisation, is a surgical procedure for permanent birth control. A vasectomy starts providing contraceptive protection around 8 to 12 weeks after the procedure. It is permanent, and cannot always be reversed. Couples planning a baby at a later stage of life cannot get the vasectomy reversed.

The ‘pill’ discovery 

On February 14, the journal Nature Communications published an early study which found that the sperms of mice were immobilised before, during and after mating by a single dose of the drug TDI-11861. For around two hours, the contraceptive proved 100 per cent effective in the prevention of pregnancy. After 24 hours, the mice regained their full fertility. 

As per a report published in New Scientist, “The team assessed the movement of sperm collected from 17 male mice, eight of whom received the drug. In samples collected two hours after mice received the drug, only about six per cent of sperm were mobile on an average compared with about 30 per cent in samples from control mice.”

The study’s lead author Dr Melanie Balbach said, “Our inhibitor works within 30 minutes to an hour. Every other experimental hormonal or non-hormonal male contraceptive takes weeks to bring sperm count down or render them unable to fertilise eggs.” 

As per the doctor, the males started recovering their fertility after three hours. “Sperm recovered from female mice remained incapacitated. There were no side effects,” she added. The doctor said that sperm began to swim after three hours and the mice totally recovered the next day. “This means we not only have an on-demand contraceptive but one that is also rapidly reversible,” she added. 

The steps ahead 

The drugs will be refined by the researchers so that they can last for longer durations before starting human trials. If things go as planned, the clinical trials of these drugs are likely to begin by 2025. The drug carries a high chance of developing into an easy-to-use contraceptive. Men will be free to take these when they want as the pills won’t have any side effects. Although the pill may be able to control unwanted pregnancies, it won’t protect people from sexually transmitted diseases. A condom will be able to keep people safe from such diseases.

Scientists hail the ‘novel idea’ 

University of Sheffield’s Professor of Andrology Allan Pacey, speaking to the BBC, said that there has been a growing need for men’s oral contraceptives and added that it was “really a novel idea” to knock out the enzyme which is important for the movement of the sperm.

“The fact that it is able to act, and can be reversed so quickly is really quite exciting… 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,” he said. Pacey added that few tests were conducted on human sperm in the laboratory and they worked in a similar way.

‘We’re very optimistic that once men take the inhibitor, it will have the same effect… We need more [birth control] options, and men need an option so that the burden of contraception is not on females anymore,” Balbach said. 

Presently, condoms and vasectomy are the options available for male birth control. However, this research has emerged as a beam of light in the dark tunnel, reflecting a more gender-balanced future. 

Source : wionews

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