Study indicates reversible male birth control may not be far off

Aug. 20, 2012, 1:30 p.m.

Monica De La Cruz and Steve Carr, Jr. both have doubts about reversible male contraception and think a man's using a condom is safe enough. (José Martinez/OnCentral)

The Pill could be in your future, gentlemen.

That's what a new study in Cell suggested last week: Researchers found that when mice were given a compound called JQ1, their sperm count was lower and the sperm they did produce didn't swim as well.

JQ1 was originally intended for cancer treatment and inhibits a protein essential to fertility called BRDT. The authors of the study discovered that the effects of JQ1 are complete and reversible, meaning that the compound didn't adversely effect the mice's testosterone levels or behavior. It also didn't have any apparent effects on any future offspring.

The science

Dr. Jay Bradner of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts was the lead author of the study, and said because the biological processes in rodents and humans have a "high degree of similarity," he and his team expect the effect of JQ1 to be "comparably evident in men."

Bradner, who's also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, explained to OnCentral: JQ1 was originally developed as a molecule for use in the treatment of cancer, and he expects it to be in the clinic within the next year. "While these will be cancer studies, we will be able to measure sperm counts in male patients treated with [the JQ1] molecules," he said.

Those sperm counts may give researchers some early evidence as to whether JQ1 would work as a reversible form of birth control.

"But to develop male birth control based on this technology, we'll be required to improve the molecule's selectivity for the BRDT protein," he said.

Remember: The BRDT protein is the one targeted by JQ1 that's essential for fertility. But JQ1 also targets three other proteins: BRD2, BRD3 and BRD4.

"The JQ1 molecule hits all four target [proteins], which was our goal when making a cancer molecule," said Bradner. "But a male birth control medicine will need to be developed that only hits BRDT. And this is doable."

And it may happen as early as two to three years from now, he added.

"Through this research project I have learned that there's a pressing need for a male alternative to contraception," he said. "There's a significant public health burden in unplanned pregnancies at a time when we have highly effective female hormonal contraception, as well as barrier methods. So a new type of contraception that provides a male option just seems extremely important night now.

That's particularly true for South L.A., where the rate of teen pregnancies is the highest in the county: In 2009, the county reported that for every 1,000 live births, about 74 were kids born to girls mothers between 15 and 19. Health officials note that most teen pregnancies are unintended.

But even if this birth control pill were to become a reality, there'd still be the question of access for southside folks. Providers in the region say that when it comes to birth control, there's still an "unmet need" in South Los Angeles.

Even with access, though, men will still need to want to use it.

Would you use it?

South L.A. reaction to the idea of a reversible form of birth control for males was mixed.

James Smith, 72, said years ago, he would have used it if he could have. But he doesn't think the compound will put a dent in the rate of unintended pregnancies.

"I don't believe the Pill is going to make a change," said Smith, referring to the male version of the contraceptive. "It's the abstinence of sexual intercourse prior to marriage. I think that'll stop a lot of this pregnancy. It starts in the home – you bring up your children and you teach them to be morally-conscious and abstain from sex [until marriage]."

But Smith also went on to say that he wasn't against the development of reversible contraception for males. He also expressed concern about possible side effects.

"If you're out there and doing those things, you don't want to take a chance on impregnating someone," he said. "And it depends – if you take one, are you going to have a foot growing out of your butt?"

Steve Carr, Jr., 35, and Monica De La Cruz, 25, are a couple, and like Smith, were walking down Central Avenue on Monday morning.

Carr said he'd "have to do a lot of research" before using it, but that he'd probably give it a shot. He's not optimistic about the outcome of increasing male responsibility, though. He pointed out that women on birth control have to take the Pill every day at around the same time, while males might be "irresponsible when it comes to birth control."

"If [this contraception is developed] for males, it would take a while for a male to actually start getting that process going like that," he said, referring to the schedule on which a woman has to take the Pill. "It's hard enough to tell a guy to put a rubber on."

When asked if he thought he'd remember to take it, he said, "Oh, no," and De La Cruz laughed.

De La Cruz said she's on birth control and doesn't really like the idea of a Pill for males. She thinks the combination of a male using a condom and a woman on the Pill makes for sex that's safe enough.

"I'm just concerned about the diseases out there," she said. "Guys use a condom because they don't want to get a girl pregnant, but they break. The safest thing about the condom is it protects you from HIV and all that kind of stuff. I mean, guys will think, 'Oh, I'm on the Pill, I can't get a girl pregnant, I don't have to use a condom'."

Carr echoed that, adding that a Pill for men would likely lead to more promiscuity.

"That just gives a guy an opportunity to say, 'Well, I can't get a girl pregnant and I'm taking my pill – let me go out there and have sex with a lot of women'," he said.

Both also worried about potential male infertility as a result of using a Pill for men, and De La Cruz admitted she had those same worries because of her use of birth control.

"I worry, but then at the same time, I try not to think about it," she said. "I know I'm taking it just to be cautious. I already have a kid. It's better to be safe than sorry."

Researchers remain optimistic that this new compound could eventually become the drug that helps men do just that, noting that the condom was the last time a reversible form of contraception for men was developed.

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