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(Gal Sandaev / The McGill Tribune)

Just keep swimming… or not: The story of male contraceptives

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Men and women are both responsible for pregnancy; yet, the burden of preventing it often falls on women.

The fact that most types of birth control are made for women creates this discrepancy, as men don’t have the same selection of methods: Female birth control includes hormone injections, morning after pills, Intrautrine Devices (IUDs), female condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, implants, vaginal rings, vaginal sponges, and contraceptive pills.

On the other hand, men have two forms of birth control: Condoms or a vasectomy. However, the male birth control pill could potentially become a reality.

Researchers at Michigan State University have been using gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 to block the gene that controls sperm production in mice. This process, has proven successful thus far. Chen Chen, an assistant professor in animal science at Michigan State University, believes his team’s discovery is the first step of many toward creating effective male birth control that can block the expression of the sperm gene in humans, called PNLDC1. This genetic editing technology completely stopped the PNLCD1 expression in male mice, thus rendering them infertile. In mice, the sterilization was permanent; however, the researchers hope to create a birth control that will temporarily block sperm production.

However promising this research may seem, the reality is that scientists and researchers have been a few years away from male contraceptive pill for decades. Gregory Pincus, who co-invented female oral contraceptive, tested the same hormonal approach on men in 1957. Since then, multiple studies, trials, experiments, and findings regarding the research and development of a male contraceptive pill have been conducted.

The Journal of Sex Research published a study by Sanford A. Weinstein and Gloria Goebel in 1979 discussing the plausibility of a male contraceptive.

“[Now] a contraceptive pill for males appears to be within the reach of biochemical science,” the study noted.

A McGill PhD candidate in Pharmacology, Thomas Nardelli, explains that the lack of funding is not to blame for the lack of male contraceptives.

“It is wrong to say money has not been invested in this field of research,” Nardelli explained. “[Research on male contraception] has traditionally been funded by many grants from funding agencies.”

Pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to venture into the male contraceptive market. Clinical trials for the male birth control pill have never moved past initial phases of testing. This reluctance comes from the nature of the medication, as pharmaceutical companies view investment in male birth control as a financial risk due to a lack of demand from men.

For one, side effects of birth control have dissuaded men from taking contraceptives. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism  in 2008 conducted a test of the effectiveness of a male hormonal contraceptive shot.

To all men: Would you be willing to take oral contraceptives (birth control pills)?

Yes
No

made here

The study cited that many men pulled out—pun intended—early because they could not handle the side effects of the birth control: Acne, mood swings, and depression. While women’s birth control also causes a litany of side effects, they are viewed as an acceptable norm.

Some believe that the lack of male birth control has nothing to do with science. Austrian- American scientist Carl Djerassi, otherwise known as the father of the female pill, spoke to this topic in an interview in 2014.

"This resistance has nothing to do with science. We know exactly how to develop the male pill,” Djerassi said. “But there’s not a single pharmaceutical company who will touch it for economic and socio-political, rather than scientific, reasons.”

However, it would be unreasonable to blame the lack of male contraceptive options solely on society. According to Nardelli, female hormonal birth control is easier to develop than male.

Traditional hormone therapies used in women do not work as well in men,” Nardelli said. “In women, during pregnancy, hormones are produced to stop ovulation. The female birth control pill contains these hormones to block further ovulation. A similar process does not exist in men as they continuously produce sperm throughout their lives.”

It would require more trials, research, and effort to develop male birth control. The lack of effort into the development is where socio-economic factors come into play.

Asking a few male McGill students about male contraceptives produced a general consensus of passivity and indifference. Male birth control is not viewed as a need, and thus male birth control will remain the same as it has since 1957—a great, broken, promise.

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