Since the dawn of time, humans have attempted to separate sex from procreation. Recently, most of these attempts have been limited to hormone treatments for women, often with numerous negative side-effects. Condoms in a wide range of materials are available, but they can dramatically lower sensation, are not 100 percent effective, and rely on the fine motor skills of generally inebriated people.
As many women know, and according to the Male Contraception Information Program, “Hormones affect everything from A to Z: acne, appetite, blood pressure, breast tenderness, chlamydia sensitivity, cholesterol, diabetes risk, depression, and so on.” These side effects have driven researchers to seek alternative therapies targeting the testes instead of the ovaries.
Up to this point, reversible contraception has been hormone-based and existed solely for women. Other than condoms, effective male contraception has been limited to surgery such as a vasectomy, a nearly irreversible process, or via injecting a polymer directly into the tubes connected to the testis,preventing the transmission of viable sperm. This method, known as Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance, or RISUG, is a non-hormonal and relatively painless procedure that lasts for up to 10 years, but is currently unavailable in the US.
The lack of reversible contraception in men is set to change in the coming years as researchers in Indonesia and the United States have found two new paths towards pill-based, reversible male contraceptives.
Pharmacological researchers at universities in Texas, Massachusetts, Ontario, and Oxford have discovered a compound called JQ1 that interferes with the formation of sperm. It reduces the number of sperm produced and interferes with their motility. JQ1 does this by inhibiting BRDT, a testis-specific protein.
According to the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington, the inhibition of this particular protein allows for a reversible contraceptive that does not affect other processes in the body, unlike the interference caused by hormones. The combination of reduced sperm quantity and mobility rendered mice in the study infertile without noticeably affecting sex drive. It had no negative side effects, and was completely reversible.
Another reversible contraceptive for men offers similar benefits, but was derived from a Papua New Guinea herbal remedy made from the dried leaves of the Justicia gendarussa.
Chemicals in this plant, according to Dr. Dyan Pramesti of Airlangga University as reported on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, interfere with an enzyme on the sperm head. The enzyme is needed to perforate the wall of the oocyte. An oocyte is defined by Biology online as an immature female sex cell that exists prior to fertilization and development into a mature egg cell. If the particular sperm enzyme is not active, or is reduced in activity, the sperm cannot penetrate the wall of the oocyte. According to the Journal of Indonesian Medicine, empirically, J. gandarusa (Justicia gendarussa Burm.F) has been used by men of Papuan tribes to control their family size. Further, J. gandarusa is not toxic, so it is safe to be consumed.
Researchers in Indonesia have been working on synthesizing these compounds into a cheap pill that can be taken by males around the world. It should be available in 2013 in markets in Indonesia and will likely eventually make its way into Western markets.
By William Tatum