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Scientists make progress on birth control options for men

The latest experimental product to show promise in early-stage clinical trials is a hormonal gel rubbed on both shoulder blades once a day to lower sperm count. According to a new study, it takes effect sooner than other methods.

It looks as though birth control options for men may soon expand beyond condoms and vasectomies, as scientists have recently made progress on a hormonal gel that’s reported to work more quickly than other methods of contraception.

The experimental product is rubbed on both shoulder blades once a day. Long-acting and reversible, it works by blocking the production of sperm in the testes using two hormones: testosterone, the male sex hormone, and nestorone, a progestin which suppresses the production of testosterone in the testes and, with it, the development of sperm.

Within eight weeks, it lowers men’s sperm count to the threshold deemed effective for contraception. This is faster than the nine to 15 weeks it takes for the male contraceptive injection to take effect, which could help to make balancing the burden currently placed on those who ovulate a reality far sooner than initially predicted.

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 waiting in extreme discomfort.

According to the findings, presented at ENDO 2024 (the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Boston), the contraception threshold was one million or fewer sperm per millilitre of semen, which 86 per cent of participants reached by week 15. Among those men, sperm production was suppressed at an average time of less than eight weeks of treatment.

‘A more rapid time to suppression may increase the attractiveness and acceptability of this drug to potential users,’ said senior researcher Diana Blithe, chief of the contraceptive development program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

‘The development of a safe, highly effective and reliably reversible contraceptive method for men is an unmet need.’

Blithe is referring to the fact that men have, in the past, been reluctant to tamper with such products, due to their potential side effects. This is what has kept previous alternatives from landing on the shelves of pharmacies across the globe and has, until now, delayed progress. But the benefits of the hormonal gel extend further than safety, efficiency, and speed.

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.

‘People always ask, ‘How long will it be until we see this product on the market?’, gynaecologist Dr Nguyen, one of the trial’s investigators, told the BBC. ‘Most people will say five to 10 years, but I disagree.’

He says he’s looking forward to seeing the gel come to market and usher in a new era of gender equity in birth control.

‘We often think of men as kind of not being aware or not wanting to be involved. But when you think about men who are in very close partnerships, how does a female partner hide the fact that they are either in pain, or they’re having abnormal bleeding, or mood swings? It’s a couples-driven medication, which is very unique.’