Men’s options for birth control are limited. In fact, guys really only have two choices: wear a condom or get a vasectomy.
Neither one is ideal.
The single biggest complaint men have about condoms is that they dull sexual sensation. That’s far from their only issue, though. Condoms are also prone to user error, and they have a tendency to make sex less spontaneous.
Guys who opt for vasectomies don’t have to worry about those problems. Not only is this procedure far more effective at preventing pregnancy, but research also shows that vasectomies can improve men’s sex lives.
That’s all well and good, but a lot of guys aren’t comfortable with the idea of a scalpel coming anywhere near their scrotums and many are afraid that they might change their minds about wanting kids in the future. Vasectomies should be considered permanent because there’s no guarantee that they can be reversed.
What we really need, then, is a new form of male birth control that offers the best of both worlds. It needs to be highly effective and reversible, while not interfering with pleasure.
So is there any chance that this will come to pass?
There’s hope. It turns out that scientists have been working on this for decades. While most attempts have fizzled, a few have shown promise. Here’s a look at the most hopeful contenders and when they might make it to the market.
THE “NO SNIP” VASECTOMY
The male contraceptive with the greatest odds of launching by 2020 is a product known as Vasalgel. I call it the “no snip” vasectomy because, like a regular vasectomy, its goal is to prevent sperm from exiting the vas deferens (the tube that carries sperm away from the testes). Unlike a vasectomy, Vasalgel doesn’t require permanently severing this tube.
Instead, a polymer is injected into the vas deferens, effectively blocking the flow of sperm. This polymer stays in place for years, but if a guy changes his mind and wants to restore his fertility sooner, it can supposedly be flushed out.
At this point, we don’t know much more, including the potential side effects or how easily the polymer can be removed. Also, one potential downside is that the polymer would need to be put in place via a scrotal injection. So, if you’re not cool with a needle in your nether regions, well, read on.
When will it get here?
The company behind Vasalgel wants to begin clinical trials in 2016. If all goes well, it could potentially be on the market within the next five years.
THE HORMONE GEL
Instead of blocking the flow of sperm, some scientists have been at work developing a chemical product that would temporarily prevent the production of sperm altogether.
One way of doing this is to apply hormone gels to the skin. In the studies that have been conducted so far, men have applied two gels to the skin each day, one containing the hormone progestin and the other containing testosterone. At the levels administered, these hormones have the effect of suppressing sperm production.
However, for reasons we don’t yet understand, this doesn’t work in all men (as many as 10 percent of men tested didn’t experience enough of a drop in sperm production for this to serve as a viable contraceptive). Also, whenever you tinker with hormone levels, there’s the potential for side effects.
When will it get here?
Although human trials are already underway, this product is in need of some tweaking, which includes coming up with a formulation that’s easier to use. Future development, testing, and approval could take up to ten years.
THE MALE BIRTH CONTROL PILL
Hormones aren’t the only way that scientists have attempted to block sperm production.
Another chemical that scientists have been studying is a compound known as JQ1 (which, in actuality, is an experimental cancer drug). When injected daily into the abdomens of male mice, this chemical dramatically reduces sperm count by binding itself to a protein that’s needed for sperm production, thereby preventing it from being used.
Whether this will ultimately work in humans remains to be seen. Also, if it ends up requiring a daily injection (even though it’s not in the scrotum), then it’s probably not an option that a lot of guys would choose.
In light of this, some scientists are testing a different chemical compound that could be taken orally (just like the female birth control pill).
One such possibility was presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Chemical Society yesterday. A research team from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy is working on a drug that temporarily blocks a specific type of receptor (retinoic acid receptor-α) that is essential for sperm production. As long as the receptor blockage continues, sperm production will cease.
However, the researchers have acknowledged problems in getting this drug to target only the receptors that they want it to, which means that it’s nowhere near ready for prime time.
When will it get here?
These drugs are in the very early stages of development, and human trials are unlikely to begin any time soon.
Although it’s likely that men will have some new contraceptive options to consider in the next few years, don’t hold your breath for the male version of the pill — it could be decades in the making.