How the 'male pill' could actually work

Story highlights

  • Oral contraceptives for men are in development
  • Japanese researchers have made mice reversibly infertile
  • Also being trialled are injections that block sperm from leaving a man's body

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(CNN)"The Pill" -- two words synonymous with birth control. But more than 50 years after oral contraceptives became commonplace, they remain an option only available to women.

In the United States, 17.5% of women aged 15-44 using birth control are taking oral contraceptives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
    For men, the options remain as they have done for centuries -- condoms and vasectomies. There is no pill in sight. Yet.
      "Even if just 5-10% of men used this (an oral contraceptive), it would limit population growth," says Ilpo Huhtaniemi, emeritus professor of Reproductive Endocrinology at Imperial College London.
      The permanence associated with vasectomies means they're more popular with older men, while younger males prefer condoms. "There has to be something for men to take responsibility in the same way as women," says Huhtaniemi.
      Today, there is some hope on the horizon.

        Ditching the hormones

        An early strategy used in male oral contraceptive research was to control the production of sperm by targeting the hormone testosterone. Increasing testosterone levels in the body causes the male pituitary gland to release less of the hormones needed to produce sperm.
        Multiple clinical trials have shown varying effectiveness ranging from a 60 to 90% reduction in fertility, according to Huhtaniemi, and side effects included weight gain and depression.
        "There was not enough suppression," says Huhtaniemi, who believes stopping the sperm directly is the way forward, namely by targeting any one of the hundreds of genes and proteins involved in their development.
        "If we can find a drug that blocks any of these proteins, that would be a good contraceptive," says Huhtaniemi.

        Stop them swimming

        In a study in mice published in October 2015, Haruhiko Miyata and colleagues at Osaka University in Japan discovered a protein, called Calcineuron, that was found to be crucial in helping sperm swim and break through the membrane of a female egg in order to fertilize it. When the genes behind this protein were blocked, the mice became infertile.
        Effects were seen in the mice within four to five days after treatment and the presence of these same proteins in humans make this a possible option. The effects were also reversible as fertility was restored one week after treatments were stopped. "[This] may lead to the development of a reversible male contraceptive," the scientists wrote in the paper.
        But Huhtaniemi warns of the challenges when controlling large quantities of sperm and that any use by humans is still a decade away at a minimum.
        "The biology is the biggest hurdle ... at every heartbeat men produce thousands of sperm," he says.

        Prevent fusion

        Numerous studies have targeted different stages of sperm production and fertilization, including one published in 2015 that identified a process needed for sperm to fuse with a female egg during fertilization.
        The research was conducted by John Herr, professor of Cell Biology and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia, who found a miniscule filament involved in stabilizing sperm as they fuse to an egg. By blocking stabilization, they may one day prevent fusion -- and pregnancy.
        For now, the team have a lot more to uncover.
        "This is early; it's more about understanding the mechanism involved in fertilization and how you can block the formation of this filament," says Herr.
        A pill in the hand may still decades away, but Huhtaniemi remains hopeful.
        "I am convinced that an observation on a non-hormonal target will one day lead to a breakthrough," says Huhtaniemi.

        Stop sperm in their tracks -- literally

        One promising new development in male contraception is not a pill, but an injection known as Vasalgel. This involves a polymer being injected into sperm-carrying tubes to block sperm as they are released.
        The injection mimics the effect of a vasectomy -- without the snip.
        "It's a sticky gel that goes into [the