Researchers have finally found a compound that may offer the first effective and hormone-free birth control pill for men.
The study, published today in the journal Cell, describes how the small molecule makes male mice reversibly infertile, without putting a damper on their sex drive. When the animals stop taking this new form of birth control, their sperm rebound and they are able to produce perfectly healthy offspring once again.
"This compound produces a rapid and reversible decrease in sperm count and motility with profound effects on fertility," said James Bradner of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and lead author of the study.
A male birth control pill has been difficult to come by, in large part because of the challenge of getting any drug across the blood:testis barrier, where it can reach the sperm-generating cells. That lack of contraceptive alternatives for men is partially responsible for the high rate of unplanned pregnancies. Despite the unsatisfactory options for male contraception, nearly one-third of couples rely on male-directed birth control methods.
Known as JQ1, the new compound developed in the Bradner lab works by targeting a testis-specific protein called BRDT that is essential for fertility. When mice are given the BRDT-inhibiting molecule, they begin producing fewer sperm and those sperm they do produce don't swim as well.
"This is a good reason to get excited about low sperm counts," said Martin Matzuk of Baylor College of Medicine, another author of the report.
Mating studies confirm that JQ1 indeed works as an effective contraception. Even better, those effects are completely reversible and without adverse consequences for the animals' testosterone levels or behavior. The small molecule also comes without any apparent side effects on the males' future offspring.
"There has not been a new reversible contraceptive for men since the development of the condom, centuries ago," notes William Bremner from the University of Washington, Seattle. In an accompanying commentary, he refers to Matzuk and Bradner's contraceptive method as "a breakthrough new approach."
"We envision that our discoveries can be completely translated to men, providing a novel and efficacious strategy for a male contraceptive," the researchers wrote, noting the high degree of conservation between human and mouse BRDT proteins.