New cancer drug key to male contraceptive pill

A new compound may offer the first effective and hormone-free birth control pill for men. Image: Shutterstock

Scientists believe they are a step closer to developing a male contraceptive pill after they developed a cancer drug that interrupted sperm production in mice.

Two thirds of Australian women aged 18 to 49 either use some form of temporary contraception, or have permanent contraceptive protection, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  A survey conducted by Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 66 per cent of male and female participants believed that men should play a bigger role in the choice and use of contraception. Due to the limited options available to men, birth control has primarily remained a female responsibility but, according to scientists, this might be about to change.

Described in the latest issue of Cell, this possible pill relies on a newly discovered compound that can effectively cross the boundary from blood vessels into the testes. The compound was actually meant to block a cancer-causing gene, but the researchers found it also interrupted sperm production in mice.  “Our findings demonstrate that, when given to rodents, this compound produces a rapid and reversible decrease in sperm count and mobility with profound effects on fertility,” says senior author James Bradner, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Baylor College of Medicine.

The chemical is a thienodiazepine inhibitor called JQ1, which targets a protein, called BRDT, tied to sperm development. This approach does not affect the stem cells (spermatognia) in the testes, and following drug removal, sperm production can rebound and fertility will return.

Even more promising, the compound doesn’t change testosterone levels, or lead to any apparent decrease in sex drive. “While we will be conducting more research to see if we can build on our current findings, JQ1 shows initial promise as a lead compound for male contraception,” Bradner adds.

Although researchers hope to be able to target the same protein in men, more tests will be needed to show whether the drug is both safe and effective in people. Some doctors even suggest that the idea of slashing sperm counts, even temporarily, can be scary for men. “Sperm-making is a pretty delicate thing, and people do seem to have a concept of that,” says Dr Joseph Alukal, director of male reproductive health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center in an online statement. “How long did it take for women to get comfortable with the reversibility of the birth control pill? I’m not sure.”

Nevertheless, Alukal says he thinks some men would welcome the option of a birth control pill. “If you look at vasectomy, there are plenty of men in committed relationships who choose to take onus of reproductive planning on themselves,” he says. “I think the same sorts of people would choose to look into something like this.”

Although this research offers exciting prospects in the world of contraception, it’s important to remember that this new preventative method in no way protects you against STD infections. In any case, the path between this research and a new product is likely to be long.

 

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