By Jacqueline Katz
We can trace primitive female contraceptive methods as far back as 1825 BCE, when the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus of Ancient Egypt was first drafted. So, why did it take nearly four thousand years for scientists to discover a marketable oral contraceptive for men?
The American Chemical Society’s Journal of Medicinal Chemistry published a study in January indicating that a derivative of ouabain, a plant extract traditionally used by African warriors as arrow poison, can function as a sort of spermicide. What was used as a fatal toxin then is now, in small doses, prescribed as an effective treatment for heart attack patients and, possibly, as a male birth control pill in coming years.
Research has been conducted on ouabain as a male contraceptive in the past and these earlier studies also found that it does decrease male fertility. Trials were not further pursued, however, because of the notable risk of heart damage associated with the compound. But, what is different about the research conducted by Gunda Georg, Gustavo Blanco, and their team is that they manipulated the ouabain compound to eliminate the potential heart risk, making a derivative far more likely to debilitate the protein subunit found in sperm cells rather than those found in heart tissue. The ouabain analog binds to the protein subunit in the sperm cell, thereby crippling it so that the sperm cell is no longer mobile, a feature crucial to the fertilization of the ovum.
There has been no measured toxicity found in rats upon ingestion of the pill. The scientists on the project also maintain that full fertility should be restored once the patient stops taking the drug, as the compound only affects mature sperm cells and, therefore, sperm cells produced after routine dosage has ceased should not be harmed by the contraceptive.
American Chemical Society. "Prospective birth control pill for men has its origin in an arrow poison." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 January 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180117164007.htm>.
Smith, Lesley. “The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus: Ancient Egyptian Medicine.” Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, vol. 37, no. 1, 2011, pp. 54–55., doi:10.1136/jfprhc.2010.0019.