Is a male contraceptive pill finally on the horizon?

When it comes to contraception, men generally have two options: condoms and vasectomies. But researchers around the globe are working on a game-changing alternative.

The male contraception options that we take for granted today have been widely available since the early 1900s, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that trials for an oral contraceptive pill designed for women began.

Eventually approved for use in 1960, even with the development of implantable contraceptive methods, the pill remains the most common method of contraception among Australian women aged 16-49.

And that begs the question – is male contraception in the form of a pill ever going to be available?

How would it work? Would men take it? And how far off might it be?

Is there a contraceptive pill for males?

Despite being on the drawing board since the late 1950s, the answer, for now, remains no.

But researchers all over the world remain on the case.

In December last year, a new in-human trial for a hormone-free male birth control pill was launched, drawing on two decades of research conducted by regents professor Gunda Georg, of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota.

“The last innovation in contraception was the birth control pill for women, and that’s more than 60 years ago,” Prof Georg says.

“The world is ready for a male contraceptive agent, and delivering one that’s hormone-free is simply the right thing to do given what we know about the side effects women have endured for decades from the pill.”

What’s the issue with hormonal male contraception?

A male contraceptive pill has been in the pipeline for decades but, until recently, drug candidates up for consideration mainly used hormonal agents to suppress testosterone in an effort to prevent sperm production – much like the female contraceptive pill contains hormones that prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg each month.

But similar to the pill for women, hormonal contraceptives for men have been linked to a list of potential side effects, including mood changes, acne, weight gain and decreased libido.

So how might a hormone-free male contraceptive pill work?

It turns out there are a few different hormone-free contraceptive methods for men being investigated.

For example, a recent Monash University study found stinging nettle leaf extract has the potential to block a protein that controls the movement of sperm.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK are focused on a cell-penetrating peptide that interacts with a specific target inside sperm that inhibits its motility and blocks fertilisation.

And Prof Georg’s discovery, a drug candidate called YCT-529, prevents sperm production by blocking access to vitamin A – preclinical studies have shown it’s 99 per cent effective and 100 per cent reversible.

Would men take a male contraceptive pill?

Back in the ’50s, when the co-inventor of the female contraceptive pill decided to try testing the same hormonal approach on men, the general consensus was that male attitudes to taking such a pill would be a major obstacle to overcome.

But nearly 70 years later, times have changed.

The co-founder and CEO of YourChoice Therapeutics (the biopharmaceutical company taking YCT-529 to trial), Akash Bakshi notes contraceptives only work if they’re used.

“YCT-529 blocks a protein – not hormones – to prevent sperm production,” Akash says.

“We believe this will be more attractive to men, most of whom view pregnancy prevention as a shared responsibility even despite today’s limited contraceptive options, which are permanent or only moderately effective.

“The dearth of options reinforces that centuries-old view that pregnancy prevention is ‘a woman’s responsibility’; it’s not, and we’re committed to advancing the first hormone-free birth control pill for men that’s effective, convenient and temporary.”

With the current clinical trial of YCT-529 expected to conclude later this year, if results are promising, researchers say a male contraceptive pill could hit the market in the near future.

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Written by Karen Fittall.