Tag Archives: clinical trials

Expanding Options for Male Contraception

Condoms are the only contraceptive device that does double duty in preventing pregnancy and STI transmission. But will men’s birth-control options expand?

Condoms are the only contraceptive device that does double duty in preventing pregnancy and STI transmission. But will men’s birth-control options expand?

Many have wondered why there is not a male equivalent to the Pill. The short answer to this question is that the release of one egg is easier to prevent than the flow of millions of sperm. The longer answer to that question includes a litany of failures in the search for such technology. Currently, however, there are some interesting developments in male birth control.

The condom, of course, is the only birth-control method to do double duty in reducing risk for both pregnancy and STI transmission, but many heterosexually active males would like more options than the tried-and-true rubber, and their female partners, despite having expanded contraceptive options – including the Pill, the patch, and the IUD – might prefer for the men in their lives to help shoulder the birth-control burden.

One method under investigation is ultrasound, a technology that has been around for quite some time. Though scientists have been aware of its contraceptive potential since at least the 1970s, most studies have been conducted on nonhuman animals (though human trials could be on the horizon). Ultrasound involves the application of high-frequency sound waves to animal tissue, which can absorb the sound waves’ energy as heat. The possibility for ultrasound’s use for contraception operates on the idea that briefly heating the testes, which in mammals are normally kept a few degrees below core body temperature, can halt sperm production, leading to temporary infertility for about six months. Additionally, ultrasound could affect cells’ absorption rates of ions, which itself could create an environment unfavorable to spermatogenesis. Its extremely localized effects on animal tissues make ultrasound an attractive candidate for research.

One small study conducted on five dogs applied ultrasound to the canine testicles three times over a period of a few days. The researchers compared sperm count before the procedure to two weeks after the procedure. After the ultrasound treatments none of the canine sperm samples contained sperm. Side effects included tender testicles that had been reduced in volume. Continue reading

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Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development – The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) – contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch – and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization – an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading