Turning the tables: a contraceptive for men

The best birth control in the world is not for women

For decades now, the onus of contraception has largely been placed on women; they are still, for the most part, expected to singlehandedly deal with the consequences of sex, women still fight for their reproductive rights in some parts of the world. For a topic that carries a stigma to this day, contraception affects a large majority of us. Yet slowly, more and more men are actively taking part in preventing unwanted pregnancy. Advances in the field of contraception are quickly making it easier and more socially accepted for men to take their reproductive health into their own hands. One such new discovery is a male non-hormonal contraceptive, delivered by means of a one-time injection. The product could potentially be a great alternative to problematic female contraceptives that have been circulating the market for years.

Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance (RISUG) is a polymer – a mixture of chemical compounds – developed in India, which has been under testing for several decades as a long-term male contraceptive. When injected into the vas deferens (the part of the penis that transports sperm for ejaculation), it turns into a gel that does not allow sperm to pass through. Pursuing this product’s development is the Parsemus Foundation, a U.S. non-governmental organization focused on advancing low-cost medical discoveries which have been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry. In early 2010, the Parsemus Foundation obtained the rights to start studying the RISUG technology. A new U.S. version, called Vasalgel, is currently being developed, with clinical trials beginning this year. The foundation’s focus is to make the contraceptive available and affordable worldwide. If everything goes as planned, Vasalgel will be accessible to the public by the end of 2015.

Vasalgel, after being injected, blocks most of the passageway leading to the opening of the penis. Complete blockage is not necessary, as the polymer quickly solidifies and kills any sperm that come into contact with it. This is achieved by the combination of positive and negative charges on the polymer surface that causes the sperm’s membranes to burst. As a result, important enzymes leak from the sperm, rendering them useless. This form of contraceptive is so powerful that clinical trials have shown regular doses of RISUG can be effective for about ten years, though this procedure does not have to last that long. If at any point the man wants to restore his fertility, the polymer is simply flushed out with an injection of sodium bicarbonate.

As far as the prevention of STIs (specifically HIV) go, neither RISUG nor Vasalgel can provide that benefit. Though RISUG was initially believed to have the potential to reduce the transmission of HIV, it was merely a hypothesis. With this in mind, it’s upsetting to think about what this means for the spread of STIs. While, ideally, condoms protect users from infections as well as unwanted pregnancy, the Vasalgel procedure is only a contraceptive. Rumours surrounding the product need to be dispelled before it reaches the market. Today, what most consumers want is an inexpensive, long-lasting but non-permanent contraceptive that also protects against infections, but we have to take what we can get at this point.

However, there may be a contraceptive developed in the near future that delivers on these promises. Nicknamed the “clean sheets” pill, a male birth control option is undergoing research in the United Kingdom. The pill, which inhibits the release of any semen, is the first to have the potential to stop the spread of HIV from infected men to their partners.

Unfortunately, the product is at a fairly early stage of development and lacks the resources needed for further research. As with many experimental drugs, the pill is going through a funding dry spell, having been struggling for over six years. One thing it won’t have trouble with is being picked up by pharmaceutical companies, since a temporary pill has the potential of making big bucks, just like the female contraceptive we all know so well; this is precisely where Vasalgel differs. Though it seems to be an incredibly simple and affordable product, it’s taking some time for it to reach the consumer. In fact, the reason the Parsemus Foundation is behind Vasalgel is the product’s lack of appeal when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry. Its long-lasting effects, combined with its low price, are not the signs of a big money maker. But the rest of us see an affordable, safe, and long-lasting non-hormonal contraceptive with virtually no side effects. For now, when it comes to Vasalgel hitting the market, we can still hope for a happy ending.