Currently, condoms are the only form of effective birth control for men. While ideally safe, they may not be a favored method for couples in a long-term, committed relationship. Additionally, condoms are largely misused, leaving room for condom failure, and potentially, pregnancy. This may leave few options for some couples, particularly those in which the female partner is unable to use contraceptives or contraceptives prove to be ineffective at preventing pregnancy. Thankfully, that may all be changing. New developments in male contraceptives may soon offer couples more flexibility in pregnancy prevention.
Former research has concentrated on offering the same types of hormones found in female contraceptives – estrogen and progesterone. Unfortunately, these studies have experienced some road blocks, namely the frustrating side effects. One study was actually shut down because of severe depression symptoms in men. However, a new study may help to move some of those difficult road blocks, and may even provide a more effective contraceptive method for men.
Published in the journal PLos Genetics, researchers on the most recent study at University of Edinburgh have discovered a single gene that is essential in sperm production – Katnal1. They discovered the importance of the gene by using a chemical compound, ENU, which causes genetic mutation. After treating the mice, researchers bred them to see if they had become infertile. Eventually, they were able to establish a group of impotent mice and genetic mapping was done to try and determine which gene had been mutated by the chemical. The results led them to the gene Katnal1.
“Importantly, the random nature of ENU, which causes changes in DNA at random, means we can identify important genes that otherwise we would have no reason to suspect play a role in male fertility,” stated Dr. Lee Smith, lead author of the study and reader in the department of genetic endocrinology at the University of Edinburgh. “For example, before this study, no one had any idea Katnal1 was even active in the testis, and as such, Katnal1 would probably not have been identified in any other.”
Armed with this new information, researchers probed a little further, eventually finding that Katnal1 is needed to regulate microtubules. This structure is responsible for both support and nutrition of the sperm. Without them, sperm is unable to move through the testes while maturing.
Unfortunately, this is only the first step in finding an effective method of birth control for men. Obviously, a practical male contraceptive would not use gene mutation. Researchers will need to find the protein responsible for producing Katnal1 to make the contraceptive safe to use. Additionally, blocking Katnal1 could make a man infertile for the rest of his life – this might be beneficial for a small group of men, but not males seeking contraception as a whole. So researchers will need to find a method that will block the gene only as long as desired.
“The important thing is that the effects of such a drug would be reversible because Katnal1 only affects sperm cells in the later stages of development, so it would not hinder the early stages of sperm production and the overall ability to produce sperm,” Smith stated, adding that he and his team have a lot of work ahead of them, but hope to have made some serious progress within the next decade. “We are at the beginning, but have taken a great step forward in identifying a new pathway that controls male fertility.”
And if providing male contraception isn’t enough to get you excited about the most recent study, this might pique your interest: Smith also believes that their work may be beneficial for couples who are struggling to conceive where the male is the infertile partner.
“As we move towards personalized medicine, comparing DNA sequences of infertile men against gene data provided from studies such as this will help clinicians identify the causes underlying unexplained male infertility,” Smith stated. “If a genetic fault can be traced to a problem within the supporting cells of the testes rather than the sperm cells, then it could be possible to use a gene-therapy approach to replace the faulty copy of the gene and restore fertility.”
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