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We Could Finally Have Access To A Male Birth Control Soon

by Annamarya Scaccia

The male birth control pill. For a while, contraception for men seemed like a far-fetched idea, until a study last year brought scientists closer to a solution. The male birth control shot was found effective at preventing pregnancies, but the trial was cut short due to serious negative side effects. It seems, though, that another type of birth control for men might be here soon, thanks to a new animal study out of Michigan State University.

The Detroit Free Press reported on Wednesday that Michigan State scientists have discovered a way to block the gene that controls sperm production in mice, causing them to become infertile. According to researchers, the findings, which resulted from a study on male fertility and infertility, could be the first step in developing birth control for cisgender men that blocks a similar human gene known as PNLDC1.

Chen Chen Ph.D, an assistant professor of animal science at Michigan State, told the Detroit Free Press,

More than 500,000 men get vasectomies every year,. There’s a huge market for this research, and now we further understand the genetic underpinnings of sperm development in mammals. I think for the general public there is great need in another male contraceptive method.

The researchers found that, in blocking this gene, the mice became permanently sterilized, according to the Detroit Free Press. So, Chen told the Free Press, scientists would have to find a way to temporarily block the gene's function so that men could stop sperm production (known as spermatogensis) for short periods — similar to how current birth control methods work regarding egg production.

One option would be to use testosterone, Chen said, but the hormone, while effective at limiting spermatogensis, has a history of awful side effects that make it ineligible for widespread use. Scientists plan to look at a nonhormonal option that targets the gene specifically in the testes, the Detroit Free Press reported. Chen said of the potential research,

I think the whole world is actually expecting something big in male contraception.

The Michigan State researchers have yet to start work on creating male contraception, but the findings from their animal study do give them a promising path forward. And it's a welcome development in light of the short-lived research on the male birth control shot. Although the shot showed some promise, researchers ultimately terminated the United Nations-sponsored study early due to bad side effects, according to CNN.

A group of international researchers tested the shot on 320 men, ages 18 to 45, who received a hormone injection every eight weeks. The injection was a mix of testosterone and a derivative of progesterone and estrogen. Some men involved in the study, which published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, reported experiencing depression or an abnormally fast and irregular heartbeat after the injections ended. Doug Colvard, co-author of the study, told CNN,

It is possible that the fluctuations in the circulating progestin following bimonthly injections could have resulted in the reported or observed mood swings, such as occurs in women, whether on a hormonal contraceptive or not.

Of course, the fact that the study ended due to side effects received a lot of backlash. That's because, on the surface, there was a glaring dichotomy over the acceptable side effects in male and female birth control. Women are expected to bear the brunt of preventing pregnancy, not only when it comes to taking birth control but also when putting up with its side effects. But, as Popular Science pointed out, the side effects were quite serious, so ending a study because "something seems fishy" is a good thing. People routinely drop out of trials all the time, so to cut a study short is not necessarily uncommon.

That does bring up another point about clinical trials, though. Scientists run trials to test the safety and efficacy of drugs in development. But the way those studies are conducted also need to be improved for the sake of everyone's health — women included.

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