Man holding a pill or medication in his hand

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PULLMAN, Wash. — A ground-breaking contraceptive pill for men could be just around the corner after a major genetic breakthrough. Scientists at Washington State University have identified a gene which temporarily renders sperm infertile after they remove it.

The research team discovered a protein encoded by this gene, found solely in the testicular tissue of most mammals, which reduced sperm counts and deformed remaining sperm to make them incapable of fertilizing an egg when altered. The potentially historic breakthrough contraceptive pill would also have no hormonal side-effects and could be additionally help control animal overpopulation — replacing castration.

Crucially, the destabilization of the infertility protein is not permanent, meaning sperm will recover once the person or animal stops taking the treatment. Scientists have hailed the discovery as potentially important for the future of the human race. In their study, researchers identified the expression of a gene called Arrdc5 in the testicular tissue of mice, pigs, cattle, and humans.

Although other molecular targets have previously been sighted to develop male contraceptives, the Arrdc5 gene is specific to male testes and can be found in multiple warm-blooded species. The researchers found that removing the gene led to significant infertility by causing a condition known as oligoasthenoteratospermia — or OAT.

4 genes could increase the risk of suicide
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This condition is the most common diagnosis of male infertility in humans, leading to a decrease in sperm produced as well as sperm being slower and distorted in shape, so the sperm is unable to fuse with an egg. The WSU team observed male mice lacking the gene and found they produced 28 percent less sperm, which also moved 2.8 times slower than in normal mice.

Nearly all of the sperm in mice lacking the Arrdc5 gene (98%) was deformed, with abnormal head and mid-pieces. The results of the study appear to indicate that the protein encoded by this gene is essential for normal sperm production. The WSU team next plans to work on designing a drug that would inhibit the production or function of this protein.

However, disrupting the functions of this protein will not require any hormonal interference, a key hurdle considering the multiple roles testosterone plays beyond sperm production in men, including the building of bone mass and muscle strength as well as red blood cell production. The team also says that designing a drug which only targets this protein would further make it easily reversible as a contraceptive.

(Photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition)

“The study identifies this gene for the first time as being expressed only in testicular tissue, nowhere else in the body, and it’s expressed by multiple mammalian species,” says Jon Oatley, senior author and professor in WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, in a university release. “When this gene is inactivated or inhibited in males, they make sperm that cannot fertilize an egg, and that’s a prime target for male contraceptive development.”

“You don’t want to wipe out the ability to ever make sperm — just stop the sperm that are being made from being made correctly,” the study author adds. “Then, in theory, you could remove the drug and the sperm would start being built normally again.”

Dr. Oatley, along with the study’s first author Dr. Mariana Giassetti, has already filed a provisional patent for the development of a male contraceptive based on this gene and the protein it encodes. As the gene is found across mammalian species, Dr. Oatley says the discovery could also herald advances in animal contraception. The scientists analyzed available data on DNA and protein sequences in mammals and found the gene in nearly every known mammal species.

This, the study authors explain, has the potential to open up development for male contraceptives for animals which could replace other surgical options for livestock, helping to manage the overpopulation of some wild animals. However, the WSU scientists insist they are for now focused on producing an effective contraceptive pill for men to hand them more control over their reproduction.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, further acknowledges that although many forms of birth control already exist for women, these are not always effective or widely available. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the world’s pregnancies remain unintentional.

“Developing a way to curb population growth and stop unwanted pregnancies is really important for the future of the human race,” Oatley concludes. “Right now, we don’t really have anything on the male side for contraception other than surgery and only a small percentage of men choose vasectomies. If we can develop this discovery into a solution for contraception, it could have far-ranging impacts.”

South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.

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1 Comment

  1. D C M says:

    I thought there were male pills decades ago. I just figured feminist domination of the law and science kept it under wraps.