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Could the pill for men balance the contraceptive burden?

Scientists have developed a male contraceptive that doesn’t target testosterone, avoiding unwanted side effects like weight gain and depression. After proving 99% effective at preventing pregnancy in mice, the drug is set for human trials.

It looks as though birth control options for men may soon expand beyond condoms and vasectomies because scientists in the US have developed a male contraceptive pill that’s so far proven safe and effective on mice.

Set for clinical trials in humans as early as this year, the drug’s approval could help to balance the burden that’s currently placed on those who ovulate.

The news is particularly welcome in the UK amid recent allegations that the country’s heavily understaffed and underfunded reproductive healthcare services are unable to perform IUD removals, leaving thousands of women in extreme discomfort.

The 3 most promising new methods of male birth control, explained - Vox

Presenting their findings at the American Chemical Society’s Spring 2022 conference last Tuesday, researchers explained that the breakthrough medication works thanks to a molecule called YCT529.

Targeting a protein called the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-α) – a form of vitamin A that plays an important role in sperm formation – it’s able to cause a significant reduction in sperm count over a four-week period.

Within a month of being weaned off the pill, fertility levels return to normal, and reproduction becomes possible once more.

What makes the discovery stand out, however, is that the pill does not target testosterone (the male sex hormone), thereby eliminating the risk of side effects that have, until now, kept previous alternatives from landing on the shelves of pharmacies across the globe.

‘Most female birth control pills work on the female sex hormones,’ says Abdullah al Noman, who was involved in conducting the study.

‘But targeting the male sex hormone leads to a lot of side effects such as weight gain, depression, and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Men are less willing to take a birth control pill that has significant side effects. That’s why we are targeting a non-hormonal pathway to developing a male birth control pill.’

Free Person Holding a Contraceptive Stock Photo

It’s also a great deal more reliable than single-use condoms which are prone to failure and terrible for the environment, as well as much less of a commitment than largely irrevocable vasectomies which are procedures generally considered a permanent form of male sterilisation as the reversal surgery is expensive and isn’t always successful.

For this reason, scientists have been trying for decades to create a compound like this one, though it remains to be determined how human test-subjects will react to it, regardless of how promising it seems.

‘We are very excited and hopeful about this drug. If approved, this could be the next breakthrough in birth control pills since the first female birth control pill in 1960,’ says al Noman. ‘If everything goes well and the drug shows safety and efficacy in the clinical trial, it’d be safe to assume that we could see this on the market within this decade and perhaps as early as in five years.’

 

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