On 17 April, a group of researchers from Washington State University published an article in Nature Communications about a massive breakthrough on a highly effective, reversible, and non-hormonal male contraceptive. So, is the time for men to take the pill just around the corner?
Dr Mariana Ianello Giassetti and her colleagues, the group responsible for this breakthrough, found a gene in the testes of male mice, pigs, cattle, and humans, called ARRDC5, which plays a crucial role in the creation of sperm. It was discovered that when this gene is put to sleep, the sperm count drops, the speed at which they swim slows down and most sperm are deformed. This results in a quick and easy sterilisation. However, the clincher is that once the gene is no longer suppressed, sperm production returns to normal. In fact, this discovery is so potentially revolutionary that it has already been patented for further testing.
But surely, many readers must now be thinking, “About time”. Before we examine the wider impact this discovery might have, let us look at the history of male contraceptives to determine why it is only now being pushed to the forefront.
Back in 1974, the topic of male contraceptives was a talking point at the UN World Population Conference. According to an article originally published in Mosaic, Dr Elsimar Coutinho was testing a potential male contraceptive called gossypol at the Federal University of Bahia. He would present his proposal and findings to the 1400 delegates at the conference. But much to his own surprise, most of the women in attendance rejected his proposal. The reasoning was that women had overseen their own fertility matters for nearly a decade and did not see the need to relinquish that control to men.
Dr Coutinho then decided to pursue further research and support in the developing world and found sponsors in China. Once the trial results returned and showed that large numbers of men could no longer retain their sperm count due to tissue damage caused by the drug, the idea of the male contraceptive was pushed far back. With this risky history, it would be easy to bemoan the need for the male contraceptives, but some other facts need to be taken into account as well.
According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly half of all pregnancies are accidental. This mainly boils down to ineffective hormonal contraceptives for women, both sexes’ unwillingness to undergo invasive operations, and the discomfort and inconvenience caused by other options such as IUDs and condoms. The need for an on-demand, safe and unintrusive contraceptive has always been the top priority. But for the longest time contraception was mostly focused toward women because of the challenges that come with male contraceptives. This is due to the high rate at which men produce sperm – nearly a thousand every second – and the need to stop every single one of them from fertilising a single egg. Yet, that is where the research being conducted by Dr Giassetti and her colleagues comes into play.
If the ARRDC5 gene is the missing ingredient to the contraceptive puzzle, then hormone contraceptives, with all their health risks and side effects, can finally be discarded. And the ridiculous prices pharmaceutical companies put on their hundreds of different products can be curbed. All of this and a safer sex future has possibly been found simply by looking around a mouse’s sack.