Developing the male pill

Fadela Slamdien

Oral contraception has been a responsibility largely left to women, but with innovative research carried out by UWC’s department of Medical Bioscience and the University of Missouri, contraception (as easy as popping a pill) could mean men will no longer be able to act surprised at an unexpected pregnancy.

The team, headed by Professor David Fisher,  has discovered that a molecule extracted from a herbal plant (dubbed ‘molecule x’) that is found worldwide, was able to bring about a 100 percent contraceptive effect in males of three animal species tested - namely mice, rats and rabbits. What further amazed the scientists was that the molecule had no side-effects. The contraceptive effect was immediate with the only drawback being a three-month wait before fertility kicks in again. This is typical after the use of any male contraceptive, considering that this is the time needed for sperm to form in the seminiferous tubules of the testicles.

“This molecule was 100 percent effective with the animal models…Once you withdraw the product, within two to three months later you become fertile again, with no effect on the libido,”  Fisher announced in 2010.

Since then the team has been conducting “benchtop experiments in the lab”. Long term trials are planned for rodent studies as an intermediate step before embarking on clinical trials.

Fisher, who is chairperson of the Department of Medical Biosciences (MBS), and adjunct professor in the School of Health Professions at the University of Missouri, Columbia, USA has played a significant role in transforming the department from a mainly teaching department (comprised of only two laboratories and three staff active in research) to a research-driven department that, according to Fisher, has now become one of the best research-driven departments in the faculty, if not in UWC. Fisher attributes two winning factors to the success of the MBS department: the best teachers and the best researchers. In 2007, Fisher was presented with UWC’s Distinguished Administrators Award and in 2009 the department produced the most publications in the science faculty. Befittingly, the department was appointed with the duty of hosting the prestigious Physiological Society of Southern Africa conference in September 2011.

Fisher’s search for a reversible male contraceptive spans 11 years. In collaboration with the University of Missouri, Fisher has been studying the electrophysiological characteristics of the testes and the effect of molecule x on Sertoli cells (cells which form the inner lining of seminiferous tubules). Sertoli cells contain proteins which lock adjoining cells together and which protect the sperm from substances which could kill or damage them.

Fisher believes that molecule x is able to “compromise” this blood-testis barrier.

 “My hypothesis is that if you can compromise the blood-testis barrier, you have an automatic way of providing contraception,” he said.

“When this barrier is compromised, spermatogenesis is halted because sperm only forms in the special environment in the lumen of the seminiferous tubules. Molecule x does exactly this [compromise the barrier],” he added.

When ingested, the molecule causes cells from the blood-testis barrier to move away from each other, resulting in the termination of spermatogenesis and thus infertility.

“When we gave this molecule to the animals, the (Sertoli) cells didn’t die, they just pulled away and did not produce protein, therefore compromising  the blood-testis barrier and stopping spermatogenesis,” said Fisher.

The scientists found that once the herbal extracts were taken away, the Sertoli cells would return to their normal position and in turn the blood-testis barrier would be reconstituted, and the formation of sperm cells restored about three months later. “Once you stop taking molecule x, the Sertoli cells simply reform the barrier and spermatogenesis resumes,” said Fisher.

Besides Fisher’s research, several hopeful yet controversial male contraceptives have been invented in the past two decades, but many are still currently on clinical trials. These include testosterone injections, gels, ultrasound heating and the spray-on condom.

The latest controversial testosterone injection caused some excitement in the 1990s when it was discovered that it could cause a man to become temporarily infertile with no significant side effects, by stopping sperm production. Men were also able to recover their fertility several months after the last injection. However, one of the drawbacks was a failure to comply, as men needed to undergo monthly injections in the buttocks.

But Fisher regards the testosterone injections as a serious health hazard, as men with prostate problems can increase their risk of getting prostate cancer if they take testosterone.

Another controversial method investigated at the University of North Carolina, USA, is the use of ultrasound scanning on testes to produce temporary and reversible infertility.  The study has produced a mixed response, ranging from enthusiasm to scepticism.

Thus far, Fisher’s method does not have any known health risks or side effects - not even the usual decrease in libido, which is normally associated with studies on contraception. Molecule x is also known to have an anti-carcinogenic, anti-HIV, anti-ulcer, anti-microbial, anti-tumour and anti-hyperlipidemia effect.

With all the controversial contraceptive methods currently on trial worldwide, the hassles-free molecule x could be the magic factor in contraception becoming a shared responsibility between men and women.  – West Cape News