Life Wellbeing Male contraception: Seriously, it’s time to get a wriggle on

Male contraception: Seriously, it’s time to get a wriggle on

Scientists are trying to find ways to stop sperm in their tracks with no side effects. Illustration: Getty
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One of the longstanding and inconveniently reasonable complaints from women is that they tend to shoulder the responsibility of contraception – mainly because they have more options (pill, diaphragm, IUD, vaginal ring, implants, Depo Provera injections and the words “get off”) than men.

On the other hand, men have had two options, both of which they whinge bitterly about:

  • Condoms, which are largely effective, but akin to wearing ear-plugs and a blindfold to the opera
  • Vasectomy, the idea of which, for many men, amounts to a psychological severing of their masculine sense of themselves – and of late has suffered a downturn in uptake. Plus reversing vasectomies is tricky

The elusive male pill

However, scientists have spent countless thousands of hours in the proverbial tool-shed trying to come up with a male pill. They’ve tended to have side effects, such as enlarged livers. Plus, there’s the discouraging jibe that men can’t be counted on to take a pill each day.

But they’re still trying.

The problem is, women produce an egg or two a month. Men produce millions of sperm cells a day – and 250 million per ejaculation. Temporarily shutting down women’s fertility is so much simpler, just based on the numbers.

This colourful layered cocktail, called a Galaxy, provided the inspiration for a new form of male contraceptive tested in rats. Credit: Xiaolei Wang

Researchers have tried different ways of temporarily blocking the vas deferens – the pipeline that carries sperm from the gonads to the penis. Just about every attempt has had problems – and some of the ideas have been impractical, if not ridiculous.

Consider research published this month by Dr Xiaolei Wang and colleagues from Nanchang University, in China, who “drew inspiration from cocktails, such as the Galaxy, that bartenders make by layering colourful liquids in a glass”.

When the beverage is stirred or heated, the layers combine into a uniform liquid. Dr Wang took a similar approach to inject layers of materials to block the vas deferens.

Applying heat – down there – would cause the layers to mix, breaking them down and, according to a statement from the American Chemical Society “unplugging the pipeline”.

Needles and heat. As a contraception it would be most effective by way of spoiling the mood. Because it’s difficult to imagine any man signing up for it.

A compound taken from heart-stopping arrow poison is being explored in the development of a male pill. Photo: Getty

In April last year, researchers from University of North Carolina Health Care, in the United States, trialled in monkeys a compound called EP055 that binds to sperm proteins to significantly slow the overall mobility of the sperm without affecting hormones – making EP055 a potential male pill without side effects.

That sounds pretty good, except our sexuality is tied up with, and to a large extent ruled by, imagination and an awareness of what’s going on inside our bodies. And what comes to mind here are those addled sperm cells, calling for help, as they essentially tread water until they perish.

Also published at that time was research from the University of Washington in Seattle, in the US, and published by the Endocrine Society that found a compound called DMAU suppressed testosterone and two other hormones involved in sperm production. Trialled on 38 men, it made them fat.

Kills the mood

In January 2018, University of Minnesota researchers were working on a pill for men using a compound used in African arrow poison that causes the heart to stop. They were tweaking the compound to make it heart- safe … just not the hearts of sperms that would be left with little arrows in their bodies, floating midstream.

In October 2017, Michigan State University scientists found a way to tinker with mice genes and turn off the production of sperm. Or as lead author Dr Chen Chen put it: “Rather than stuff a rag into the leak and hope that it works, we went to the source and turned off the water supply.”

Well, okay. Tinkering with genes isn’t so bad, is it? And there were no side effects in the mice except for … small testicles.

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