Designing a male version of the contraceptive pill has proven to be a far more difficult process than its female equivalent. The best and brightest among reproductive science boffins have tended to rely on manipulating hormonal targets or manipulating sperm into a distorted form with a goal of rendering it dysfunctional. In the end, though, numbers rule. Ultimately, every one of the millions of sperm cells produced by a man have to be stopped from carrying out its fertilization mission to reach the fertile female egg. Sure it’s a cliché, but your mother was right, it only takes one single sperm to produce a baby.
A male contraceptive pill has long been a sort of objective Holy Grail among fertility scientists, yet one which has proven repeatedly elusive. Indeed, the very concept of a female contraceptive pill has offended many feminists via the very fact of its own existence. Such prejudices were not simply political however. The greed of many pharmaceutical corporations being what it is, the negative, sometimes cancer-causing aspects of the drug and the insufficiently researched amounts of dosage when it was originally sold in prescription form in 1960, according to Bernie Asbell’s history of the drug, The Pill, meant it took more than a decade and a half for some fatal ‘kinks’ in the drug to be worked out although it was already available on pharmacy shelves.
The pill has been, nevertheless, a huge success, to the point where it helped revolutionize our collective concept of sexual freedom or mass promiscuity (depending on your point of view) and the onset of the AIDS virus. What is indisputable, however, is its success. Atypically, one-third of women aged 16–49 in the United Kingdom, according to The Guardian, use either the combined pill or a progestogen-only ‘minipill’.
More recently, a combined team of British and Australian researchers announced that they had identified two proteins that can be used as a means of blocking the launch of sperm cells from the testes during ejaculation. Knocking out the proteins in a group of genetically engineered mice resulted in a 100% success rate in male animals, all of which became completely infertile, though they continued to mate normally. A similar goal could theoretically be achieved by suppressing the proteins with drugs, scientists say. In fact, medicines for prostate enlargement and high blood pressure already exist that block this protein already. The two proteins, alpha1A-adrenoceptor and P2X1-purinoceptor, are both ‘receptor’ molecules on which other agents act to trigger biological processes. Together they enable sperm cells to be transported from the testes to the penis through a muscular tube called the vas deferens, which contracts during ejaculation. Once this function is cancelled – although the sex act itself is not tampered with – ejaculate transportation is, in effect, cancelled, the researchers wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
All well and good, but many philosophers, theologians and plain old humanists feel that tampering with sperm is a form of narcissistic God-play and should present no risk of altering any possible offspring’s genetics. Even though, theoretically, such male oral contraceptive effects would be readily reversible, causing no sexual dysfunction, many patriarchal-minded philosophers, religious leaders and intellectuals have balked. Nevertheless, deleting genes in the proteins produced by male mice that were 100% infertile, wrote the researchers led by Dr. Sabatino Ventura of Monash University in Victoria, Australia. Most crucially, complete loss of fertility in the suddenly infertile mice did not affect their sex drive even slightly. Additionally, the subject mice were also able to father normal offspring, after having sperm extracted from their testes and injected into female eggs.
Will men happily volunteer to be subjects as these experiments go forward? Time will tell.