Male birth control pill being developed as experts share why it’s taken so long

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

Pills, patches, shots, and IUDs. The options for birth control for those with uteruses are plentiful in pharmacies today. But decades after the first birth control option was created, there is still no birth control on the market for those who produce sperm.

A team of researchers in the U.S. at the University of Minnesota may be one step closer to developing a promising non-hormonal contraceptive option for people who produce sperm.

There have been attempts to manufacture a male birth control pill, but no options have made it to market yet due to the side effects of targeting male sex hormones.

“Targeting the male sex hormone led to a number of side effects. So, the side effects we have seen in the clinical trials is weight gain, and depression similar to the female birth control. It also increased or decreased libido, which could be a deal breaker for some,” said Abdullah Al Noman, a grad student working on the research team.

Currently the only options to prevent pregnancy for people who produce sperm are condoms or a vasectomy.

The latest option, recently presented to the American Chemical Society, is a non-hormonal contraceptive that was 99 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy in mice. The contraceptive targets sperm mobility or the sperm’s ability to move or swim effectively in order to fertilize a female egg.

If the FDA gives the green light to the pill, Al Norman said they’re hoping to start the human clinical trials later this year.

Principal Investigator Gunda George said it still could take ten years for the pill to hit the market. But they are confident things can move faster as there has been increased interest, leading to more resources and more money being poured into the compound.

“I’m more optimistic about the timeline. We have, first of all, partnered at Your Choice Therapeutics, and they are very dedicated to this project and are really pushing ahead to get all the data done and get consultants in and really work hard at in reaching that point for the clinical trial,” said George.

George said they also have eager volunteers for when the human trials begin as well.

“We have volunteers already, so people emailed us, emailed the company, so there’s some excitement out there, there are men who want to participate,” he said.

It’s also quite easy to track how effective the pill is in human trials.

“The initial clinical trial, of course, is about safety, as I said, but then you look also for sperm count, and that’s not that difficult to do. Fertility clinics do that all the time. So the readout is it’s actually relatively easy,” said Gunda.

“I think this candidate could be a deal breaker here. We have an orally bioavailable candidate if it goes through the clinical trial and shows good result there,” Al Norman said.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research told CityNews there’s currently no research underway on prescribed male contraceptives in this country.

According to experts, one of the main reasons pharmaceutical companies and researchers have been focused on a female birth control options is because the risk of getting pregnant outweighs the risk of side effects from birth control, whereas those who produce sperm don’t shoulder that risk.

“Unfortunately, women bear the burden of the unintended pregnancy and if we look at birth control options, and you have to go through some side effects and risk effects. The risk of pregnancy is higher to a woman’s health than the risk of contraception,” said Dr. Robert Dmytryshyn, the medical director of the Bay Centre for Birth Control.

“Since men don’t carry the burden of the pregnancy, there is no risk to their health. And as such that would have driven for contraception to be developed more in women first, before men,” explained Dr. Dmytryshyn.

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Al Norman added there are still very few research groups around the world working on developing male birth control.

“There is not a lot of funding going on in this discipline, but that is kind of surprising if you look at the fact that nearly half of the world’s population could be a potential consumer for this. So you might expect there would be a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies, but for some reason, that is not the case, so that’s why I think that development in this field is not talked about as much as you’d like it to.”

CityNews reached out to three of the major pharmaceutical companies to ask whether they were researching and developing any male birth control options.

Pfizer Canada said they are not conducting any research or development in this area.

“We focus our efforts on key areas where we believe Pfizer is best positioned to provide patients with unique and needed therapies. This includes chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, vaccines, oncology, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases as well as rare diseases,” read their statement.

Merck Canada and Bayer Canada did not respond to CityNews’ request.

Dr. Dmytryshyn said he is confident there would be a market for it should a sperm-reducing non-hormonal option be available, adding there are still many people with uteruses that can’t use available birth control options.

“Absolutely, they should develop and put money into this and research into this. Even though there are other contraceptive options, there are still a percentage of people who are unable to use those options either for medical reasons or social reasons or accessibility reasons,” explained Dr. Dmytryshyn. “If the current options were so good, why are there still so many unintended pregnancies? If we were in a perfect situation, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.”

He adds condom use is still highly recommended for the prevention of sexually transmitted infections and questions whether contraceptives for those who produce sperm could lead to an increase in STIs.

“One possible concern would be if there is a male contraceptive pill, would that possibly decrease condom use and have an increase in socially transmitted infections?”

Al Norman noted that a common misconception is that people who produce sperm are not interested in taking birth control.

“There was the clinical trial with the hormonal birth control pill that has all the side effects of the pill. But still 75 per cent of those participants mentioned that if that method is available, they will take it,” explained Al Norman. “So we have given men probably less credit than should have, some of them are willing to share the burden of contraception.”

Researchers in the U.S. say that it will takes years to see how effective a new drug is in the real world and the same is anticipated should their male birth control pill reach that point.

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