Male Pill could be developed within a decade after discovery of gene key to sperm production
16:15 GMT, 25 May 2012
A breakthrough by British fertility experts could lead to a male pill and even a 'genetic vasectomy'.
Edinburgh University scientists have discovered a gene that is key to the production of sperm.
A drug that blocks the gene from working could be used as a contraceptive, liberating women from the burden of family planning.
Scientists from Edinburgh University say they have discovered a gene that is key to the production of sperm
The research could also lead to a 'genetic vasectomy' – a jab of genes that would leave a man permanently sterile.
Ultimately, within just five to ten years, it could even mean new treatments for infertile men, allowing them to achieve their dream of fatherhood.
The hopes come from an early-stage study in which scientists bred mice in which a gene called Katnal1 didn't work.
This left the male animals infertile. Tests showed that Katnal1 affects a key stage of sperm development, in which 'nursemaid' cells in the testicles nurture and nourish sperm as it matures.
If Katnal1 doesn't work properly, the sperm don't fully mature, the journal PLoS Medicine reports.
The discovery paves the way for drug that temporarily stops the gene from working.
The drug could be key to the development of a birth control pill for men, researchers say
As it wouldn't be based on hormones, it shouldn't disrupt a man's sex drive. And, unlike some other hormone-based male contraceptives in development, it should be free of other unwelcome side-effects such as mood swings and hot flushes.
Researcher Dr Lee Smith said: 'If we can find a way to target this gene in the testes, we could potentially develop a non-hormonal male contraceptive.
'The important thing is that the effects of such a drug would be reversible because Katnal1 only affects sperm cells in the later stages of development, so it would not hinder the early stages of sperm development and the overall ability to produce sperm.'
It can be argued that men lack women's motivation to prevent pregnancy, making it hard for women to trust them to take a contraceptive pill.
But Dr Smith said: 'If you asked someone in the street, especially a woman, if they'd trust a man to take a contraceptive, they'd say no.
'But data from studies shows that if people are in a loving relationship, the potential take-up of a male contraceptive is higher, especially if the woman is having side-effects from taking a hormonal contraceptive.'
A contraceptive based on the research is at least a decade from the market but other fruits of the finding are closer.
For instance, Dr Smith has shown that it is possible to use a single jab of genes to make mice sterile.
He says such 'genetic vasectomies' could be five to ten years away from hospital operating theatres.
The third possibility is using jabs of genes to correct defects in Katnal1 and other genes key to sperm production.
This could allow infertile men to father children of their own.