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The elusive male birth control pill: Recent version shows 99 percent effectiveness in mice

Male reproductive responsibility is expanding. Scientists have developed an oral male contraceptive that is 99 per cent effective in mice with no evident side effects. The team will start human trials before the end of the year, but will a version of a male birth control pill finally become available for mass distribution?

The fallout of the United States overturning Roe vs Wade will be felt worldwide. The landmark 1973 United States Supreme Court case that made abortion legal across the country for the past five decades also ensured comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services were available.

The United States is the largest donor to global public health efforts including around SRH. Not only is funding for these vital programmes and initiatives no longer a guarantee, but pro-choice and abortion suppression will increase worldwide. These are not just projections, there is evidence from previous U.S bans and crackdowns on abortion rights that all aspects of SRH will be affected.

For example, in 2017 when President Donald Trump issued a stringent “global gag rule,” the policy allowed his government to cut funding to any organisations deemed to promote abortion, causing the shutdown of contraception services in Malawi, Senegal, and Kenya. Even in Nigeria where abortion is illegal, women found it harder to access contraceptives because the local health facilities that provided them were no longer able to do so once their funding from the U.S. was halted.

With essential services being curtailed, the burden is now squarely on women’s shoulders more than before. Incidences of unwanted pregnancy will rise from a lack of affordable or subsidised contraceptives, poverty levels and maternal mortality will also increase without access to safe abortion services.

Men are at the forefront of restricting women’s bodily autonomy despite taking an apathetic role in pregnancy prevention and child-rearing

Ironically, men are at the forefront of restricting women’s bodily autonomy despite taking an apathetic role in pregnancy prevention and child-rearing. But through the power of science and growing calls for reproductive justice and equity, men have expanding options and opportunities to help shoulder the responsibility.

The elusive male birth control pill

Since the 1960s, when the female birth control pill was approved, there has been interest in formulating a male equivalent. Despite encouraging research over the years, a male birth control pill has remained elusive. Generations of women have dealt with the side effects of hormonal contraception for more than half a century including nausea, weight gain, depression and mood disorders, decreased libido and vaginal dryness, vaginal discharge, infertility, increase in blood pressure, benign liver tumours, and increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Women bear most of the burden of contraception in heterosexual relationships across the world © rawpixel/Free public domain CC0 photo.

These side effects are however the reason a male birth control pill has not yet been approved. Scientists have been working instead on a non-hormonal version that has almost no side effects.

Md Abdullah Al Noman a graduate student in the lab of Gunda Georg, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota explained the development process of their version at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2022 meeting. They targeted a protein called the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR-α) which plays a role in cell growth, differentiation (including sperm formation), and embryonic development. Knocking out the RAR-α gene in male mice makes them sterile, without any obvious side effects.

He elaborated that the mice could sire pups four to six weeks after they were taken off the drug. The team is collaborating with a company called YourChoice Therapeutics to start human trials by the third or fourth quarter of 2022, said Georg.

“I’m optimistic this will move forward quickly,” she said, envisaging a timeline to market in five years or under. “There is no guarantee that it will work…but I would really be surprised if we didn’t see an effect in humans as well,” she added.

Should the human trials prove successful and the timelines fruitful, their male birth control pill will add to the available contraceptive options and give men a low-stakes opportunity to contribute to family planning and pregnancy prevention.

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