New male contraceptive, but could you trust a man to remember to take it?
20th August 2012
Scientists in America have developed a new drug called JQ1 that claims to be the first new, non hormonal male contraceptive since the condom, which interestingly has been traced back to Egyptian times. With that in mind this could be the first major breakthrough in male birth control in thousands of years! Numerous efforts have been made to develop a hormone based male contraceptive in the past, however none have proved to be successful and have been dogged by side effects such as hot flushes, mood swings and a low sex drive. The only other method besides the condom is the withdrawal method, which at best is completely unreliable as some semen can be released before ejaculation. The development of this new drug is important as according to Dr James Bradner of the Dana-Farber Cancer Centre in Boston, who collaborated with scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston: “the lack of contraceptive alternatives for men is partially responsible for the high rate of unplanned pregnancies and contributes to the ethical, social and financial costs associated with abortions and deliveries to single mothers.” Up until now the search for a reliable male contraceptive has been thwarted by the biology of the male body. Whereas a woman releases one egg per month, a healthy man makes 1,000 sperm with every heartbeat. If you bear in mind that it only takes one sperm to fertilize an egg, then it becomes clear that any male contraceptive that is not 100% effective at stopping sperm production could not be truly reliable. Interestingly the drug JQ1 was originally designed to tackle cancer by Dr James Bradner at the Dana-Farber Cancer Centre, but it was found that JQ1 had an effect on sperm production. This is not the first time that a drug has been found to help with more than one condition as we reported earlier this month. The new drug, JQ1 works by disrupting a crucial stage of sperm development and in tests on mice produced no side effects. In mice where JQ1 was administered, sperm production plummeted and what sperm were made were bad swimmers according to the medical journal Cell. The animals were still interested in sex but given the correct dose were unable to father pups, however, when they were taken off the drug their fertility quickly returned and they became father to normal sized, healthy litters. Dr Bradner concluded: “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.” Dr Bradner has been given money from the US Government to carry out further research but cautions: “the need for extensive testing means any male pill is still a long way from the market.” However it must be noted that despite the positive findings for JQ1 there are still issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, the fact that any male contraceptive needs to completely block sperm production to be reliable and avoid conception. Added to that is the fact that many women simply do not trust men to remember to take the pill on a regular basis. In a study carried out by Judith Eberhardt from the Teesside University in Newcastle, 380 people were asked if men could be trusted to take the pill. The men who numbered 140 thought the male pill was a good idea, however the 240 women surveyed didn't think men could be trusted to remember to take the pill. While this was a small survey it seems to represent the general view of women that men can’t be trusted to take the pill. This may mean that if JQ1 is approved, pharmaceutical companies will have to look at developing options such as monthly injections or an implant that could last for three years. So while JQ1 has some hurdles to overcome it is certainly warrants further research, a viewpoint backed up by Dr Allan Pacey, a fertility expert at Sheffield University. Dr Pacey said: “The door is wide open for the development of a non hormonal pill. Although the study has only been performed on mice, it should be fairly easy to test out this approach on humans, and see whether it works equally well. This is impossible to predict in advance but it is certainly worth pursuing.