Contraceptive pill for men nears reality following breakthrough

This Morning: Dr Zoe discusses male contraception

A ground-breaking contraceptive pill for men could be just around the corner after a major breakthrough. Scientists have identified a gene which temporarily renders sperm infertile once removed. It is hoped this could pave the way for the creation of a new safe and effective form of contraception.

A research team from Washington State University (WSU) has identified expression of the gene, Arrdc5, in the testicular tissue of mice, pigs, cattle and humans.

As detailed in Nature Communications journal, when they removed the gene in mice, it created infertility only in the males, impacting their sperm count, movement and shape to make them incapable of fertilising an egg.

The potentially historic breakthrough contraceptive pill would also have no hormonal side effects and it is thought it could be additionally used on animals to quell overpopulation and replace castrations.

Crucially, the destabilisation of the infertility protein is not permanent – meaning sperm will recover once the person or animal stops taking the pills.

Doctor Jon Oatley, senior author and a professor in WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, explained: “The study identifies this gene for the first time as being expressed only in testicular tissue and nowhere else in the body, and it’s expressed by multiple mammalian species.

“When this gene is inactivated or inhibited in males, they make sperm that cannot fertilise an egg, and that’s a prime target for male contraceptive development.”

“You don’t want to wipe out the ability to ever make sperm – just to stop the sperm that are being made from being made correctly.

“Then, in theory, you could remove the drug and the sperm would start being built normally again.”

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Although other molecular targets have previously been sighted to develop male contraceptives, the Arrdc5 gene is specific to male testes and can be found in multiple mammalian species.

The researchers found that removing the gene led to significant infertility by causing a condition known as oligoasthenoteratospermia – or OAT.

This condition is the most common diagnosis of male infertility in humans; leading to a decrease in sperm produced as well as sperm being slower and distorted in shape, so the sperm is unable to fuse with an egg.

The WSU team observed male mice lacking the gene and found they produced 28 percent less sperm which moved 2.8 times slower than in normal mice.

Nearly all (98 percent) of the sperm in mice lacking the Arrdc5 gene was also deformed, with abnormal head and mid-pieces.

The WSU team is now planning to work on designing a drug that would inhibit the production or function of this protein.

Dr Oatley, along with the study’s first author Dr Mariana Giassetti, has already filed a provisional patent for the development of a male contraceptive based on this gene and the protein it encodes.

As the gene is found across mammalian species, Dr Oatley says the discovery could also herald advances in animal contraception, replacing castrations in livestock and helping to manage overpopulation.

The study also acknowledges that although many forms of birth control already exist for women, these are not always effective or widely available.

“Developing a way to curb population growth and stop unwanted pregnancies is really important for the future of the human race,” Dr Oatley added.

“Right now, we don’t really have anything on the male side for contraception other than surgery, and only a small percentage of men choose vasectomies.

“If we can develop this discovery into a solution for contraception, it could have far-ranging impacts.”

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