We go inside a lab working on developing a contraceptive gel for men
About 60 percent of American women of reproductive age are using a contraceptive method. More than 25 percent of them are using the pill.
What about the men?
For decades, researchers have been working on male hormonal contraception. They’ve faced funding challenges as well as lagging interest from pharmaceutical companies.
Another challenge is that male contraception is more complicated from a biological viewpoint. Women produce one egg a month, which means that an effective contraceptive needs to block just one hormonal spike every month. Men, on the other hand, produce thousands of sperm every second so birth control would have to continually control the development of sperm.
But earlier this year, a milestone was achieved. Scientists from the University of Washington Medical Center and the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance completed a clinical trial on men using a hormonal pill with successful results.
The experimental male pill is called DMAU (Dimethandrolone Undecanoate) and is taken once a day. It works by lowering testosterone and two other hormone levels, which are a key part of producing sperm.
The pill replaces those hormones with enough of the hormones needed to maintain the right levels for other functions, such as building muscle mass, sexual function, and mood.
One of the study’s leads researchers, Dr. Christina Wang from LA BioMed at Harbor UCLA, said she’s currently working on three clinical trials for male hormonal contraceptives: A pill, an injection, and a gel which men could simply rub on their shoulder.
While it seems like getting these to market is slow going, Dr. Wang said researches are “always optimistic.”
“I think the gel is the most advanced,” she said, “mainly because we’re using testosterone gel that has been used for treatment of deficiency in the male hormone for many years. And this gel is well known to the physicians and everyone in the community.”
Dr. Wang is currently recruiting couples to participate in the clinical trial for the gel this October. These days, her lab in Torrance is mostly filled with men waiting to get their birth control through an injection.
Mark Grayson, a 32 year-old Uber driver and student, said he’s excited about participating in the trial.
“I’ve been following a few of the male contraceptive things that have been going out there,” he says. “I’ve always been really excited to either try one or be a part of the development of one. “
But Grayson cannot rely on the injection just yet. He doesn’t know if he’ll be getting the real birth control injection or a placebo, so he was instructed to keep using birth control with his partner.
Even though there’s not an immediate application for Grayson, he said he likes being part of a bigger scientific effort and one that could change how society thinks about birth control.
“The burden of having the child, of deciding if you’re going to have a child – it all falls on the woman,” he says. “I think that it gives a little bit of balance to this equation with men being in control of some of the contraception.”
Participants are compensated for being part of the clinical trial, but Dr. Wang said that they see more men like Grayson, who are truly excited about it, especially since the research center has started recruiting on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re bringing subjects in that are younger and they are really interested in male contraception,” she said.
So when will the male birth control pill be on the market?
There are different estimates, the most optimistic is five years. But we’ve heard it before.
“In our field, there’s a joke that the male pill has been 5 years away for 20 years,” said Logan Nickels from the Male Contraceptive Initiative.
Part of his job is to educate people against two common views. One, is that men wouldn’t be open to the idea of taking an hormonal contraceptive and the second is that their female partner wouldn’t trust them to do so.
Global studies from 2000 and 2005 proved these as misconception. In the study from 2000, 65 percent of the women thought that the responsibility for contraception falls too much on women and only 2 percent said that they wouldn’t trust their partner with that. In the study from 2005, 55 percent of men said they’re willing to use hormonal contraceptive.
The studies are old and need to be updated, Dr. Wang thinks. But if anything, she estimates, the results today will be even more in favor of the ‘Male Pill’ as gender roles evolve.
The Male Contraceptive Initiative is also facilitating the development of promising birth control applications, not just hormonal.
One of these is a vas-occlusive device, which physically blocks the transport of sperm through the vas deferens. It’s similar to a vasectomy, but it’s reversible.
For Nickels, that’s a reason to be hopeful.
While the requirements for the hormonal methods are extremely rigorous, the vas-occlusive devices are in a different category.
“Those are considered medical devices rather than a pharmaceutical drug,” he said, “and so they have a different approval process and as such could be on a much shorter timeline.”
According to Nickels, these too are at least a few years away. In the meantime, Nickels will keep combatting misconceptions about male contraceptives.