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Human trials begin for gel that may stop sperm production


sPERM. Credit: Chemistry World

The United States (US) government will soon start human trials of a male birth control gel, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Wednesday.

Currently, the only approved male contraceptives are condoms or vasectomies, surgical procedures to block sperm. There are myriad forms of birth control for women and they often come with complicated and disruptive side effects. If it proves safe and effective, it would be the first new birth control for men since the condom was introduced in the 1800s. Between condoms and female birth controls, we now can make 99 percent effective contraception – when each is used properly. But each comes with significant drawbacks. Condoms themselves fail us only occasionally, but people fail to use them correctly much more often, leading to a failure rate of about 13 percent.

Failure to use a condom at all or to use one properly is a primary reason that 45 percent of pregnancies in the US are unwanted or unintended.
Female birth controls range widely in their effectiveness, but the most common forms, oral contraceptives, fail about nine percent of the time again, usually because they don’t get taken or don’t get taken on time.

The new gel, called NES/T, is about as non-invasive as a medical product can get.It contains two hormones – progestin and testosterone – that are absorbed through the skin when the gel is rubbed onto a man’s back and shoulders.

Progestin – which is also found in most hormonal female birth controls – naturally blocks the action of the male hormone, testosterone, keeping the testes from producing sperm.

But testosterone is also key to male physical features and sex drive, so the gel also delivers a dose of replacement hormone.

The NIH will recruit 420 couples to try out the gel as their only form of birth control – ultimately, for a whole year, if all goes according to plan. First men will slather up their shoulders and backs every day for between four and 12 weeks to make sure that they tolerate the product well.During this time their sperm levels will also be measured (for up to 16 weeks if necessary).

Once they are consistently producing a low enough concentration of sperm for the scientists to consider NES/T ‘contraceptive,’ they’ll start putting it to the test with their partners over the course of the next year. If it works, there may be hope for freedom from the pill for women – but it will likely be years before the male birth control gel could hit the market.

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