The invention of the contraceptive pill for women is considered one of the most important developments in medicine of the 20th century. The concept is pretty simple and successful; the pill contains synthetic female hormones that stop female ovulation. Furthermore, it makes it harder for sperm to reach the egg and fertilise it, as well as for a fertilised egg to be implanted in the womb. Due to the lack of an equivalent for men, contraception is often still largely down to women. A contraceptive pill for men would allow for a shared responsibility in contraception between the sexes and offer couples as well as singles more choices. So how come there is no pill for men?
The idea that a male pill would be highly beneficial for both men and women is far from new. There are a number of factors which make designing an effective contraceptive pill for men more difficult. One lies in the nature of male fertility. A man produces millions of sperms in a day, all of which have to be kept away from the woman’s egg. A pill would have to achieve this by either preventing the production of healthy sperm or by blocking the tubes through which sperm travels before ejaculation. If a single sperm makes it, the contraceptive pill won’t be useful.
A number of scientists have approached this problem in different ways. There are currently several projects seeking to develop a contraceptive pill for men which contains the same ingredient as the pill for women, a hormone called progesterone. Progesterone, so the theory, could prevent the production of sperm. In practice however, it was found to only decrease the number of sperm produced and it did so to a varying degree in different men, which makes it an unreliable option. The research is ongoing and various hormones and combinations of hormones are being trialled to find the best possible pill.
A team of Indian researchers has already been successful in developing a contraceptive method for men which is both effective and reversible. It is not a pill but involves an injection in the scrotum. The method is similar to a vasectomy in so far that it works by blocking the tubes which sperm travels through. Unlike a vasectomy, however, it can easily be reversed with a second injection.
The most recent development in the field of male contraception was presented by an Australian team of scientists who developed an innovative new concept. Their idea involves a pill which blocks certain proteins which are required for ejaculation. As a result, no sperm is released. The technique was found to be highly effective in mice but it has yet to be tested in human trials. It will not be on the market any time soon.
In addition to the medical challenge of preventing the ejaculation of healthy sperm, projects which work on male contraception often struggle to secure sufficient funding. Due to the fact that the contraceptive pill for women is highly effective, projects which seek to develop a comparable medication for men often face financial problems due to a lack of interest from investors and big pharmaceutical manufacturers. Despite these challenges, however, numerous projects are working towards finding a solution and it is likely that the scientific quest for a male pill will eventually be successful.