Birth Control for Men? 3 Promising Advances
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While women have had hormonal, reversible contraceptive since the 1960s, men simply don't have a form of birth control comparable to the pill. Too bad; studies conducted by the World Health Organization show that men from many countries around the world would gladly welcome such a development.
There are condoms, and vasectomies, but both methods have their downsides. Condoms can break. (And, honestly, who likes using them, anyway?) Vasectomies, while effective, are permanent. Also, although the pill for women has been deemed safe, there are still side effects and putting all the pressure on the female partner is hardly fair either.
Why has it taken so long to develop these methods for men? The challenge is twofold. The first lies in differences in biology. During pregnancy, the hormone progesterone naturally halts ovulation. Men, however, never stop producing sperm. There are other obstacles, such as funding for further research and a lack of pharmaceutical companies taking an interest in the field. But, as scientists tell me, we could be only a few years away from temporary, reversible, male contraceptives.
Dr. Diana Blithe, program director of the Contraceptive Development Research Centers Program funded by the National Institutes of Health, says the most effective known method is to administer some sort of progestin molecule, a synthetic hormone similar in function to progesterone which regulates pregnancy in women.
In men, however, the progestin suppresses the body's ability to make enough testosterone to support sperm production, so sperm count levels drop well below what's needed to fertilize an egg under normal circumstances.
But when administering progestin to men, it's necessary to administer back some androgen like testosterone. Without it, Blithe says, a man would begin to experience hot flashes and have trouble achieving an erection. Testosterone is currently commercially available as a transdermal gel, but development of an oral form remains a challenge.
There are several ways to administer the progestin: daily pills or gels, and long-lasting implants or injectables. Men could choose the method they prefer. Blithe thinks the long-lasting versions would make a better option; unlike pills, the injection or implant do not depend on remembering to take it.
"A lot of reasons why [birth control] fails in women is simply because they forget to take it," she says.
The testosterone replacement part, however, could be effective in daily dosage form. "If you don't take it, you start to feel the effects," explains Blithe. "That's self-motivating in that respect."
Blithe says two European pharmaceutical companies collaborated to conduct a large trial of male fertility while using an progestin implant and a testosterone shot, and the results were good. But the companies were taken over in mergers and people at the top decided to focus in areas that were more lucrative.
In order to get FDA approval for this method, a company would need to conduct a similar large-scale study in the U.S. showing the technique's effectiveness.
Dr. John Amory, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, is currently in the middle of clinical trials testing a combination of progesterone and testosterone. The study is being conducted at the University of Washington and at UCLA.
How does this gel work?
First, a simple explanation of male fertility: To make sperm, the brain first tells the pituitary gland to secrete two hormones, LH and FSH. In men, those hormones affect the testes, signaling them to produce sperm and testosterone. The testosterone then gets into the bloodstream and goes back to the pituitary, which helps regulate its own production.