Science

Male contraception, here we come

By Kitty Knowles 16 May 2017
Male contraception - sperm breakthough. Pic: Getty/ chatchaisurakram
Summary

Scientists developing a pill for women AND men.

We all know sperm need their tadpole-like tails to swim – but they also need them to complete their mission. At the critical moment, the little fellas spin it in one direction, drilling forward to break into – and fertilise – an egg.

Today though, scientists have made a big breakthrough of their own:

They’ve learned how to switch the drill off.

The kill switch

Sperm are great swimmers, travelling 24,000 times their own body length in the name of procreation. To get into an egg however, it must send a load of calcium ions to its tail to give it the energy boost it needs to drill forth.

Without this so-called “power kick”, it simply can’t corkscrew its way forward to victory.

Now, UC Berkeley researchers have worked out how to cut the power – by stopping the movement of calcium ions.

In fact, they’ve discovered two ways to clog up the path calcium ions would normally flow down.

Both lupeol (found in mangos, grapes, and olives), and pristimerin (AKA the “Thunder God Vine” herb) are compounds which can bind with the sperm’s ‘Catsper’ channel to stop calcium coming through.

It’s a solution that could work effectively for both men and women, taken either orally or released slowly through an implantable ring.

Contraception for all

For women, the discovery could mean better emergency contraception, said biophysicist Polina Lishko who lead the study.

“This method is not only 10 times more effective than anything currently on the market, but it clearly prevents fertilisation,” Lishko says. “There’s no embryo at any point.”

Other scientists, like the Northwestern University‘s Erwin Goldberg however, have jumped at the discovery’s application for male contraceptives.

“This is an important idea,” he says. Pharmaceutical companies just need to see there’s a demand to back further clinical trials. (Already, one other male contraceptive, has passed a primate trial, and will hit human testers next).

Lishko’s latest research is already being tested in primates, and she plans to start a company bringing the compounds to market within the next three years.

We’re another step toward the age of the universal contraceptive.

We hope it’s an age of equality for all.