Golden Balls, Sperm-Killing Gel, and Shrunken Testes, Oh My! - A Review of Male Birth Control Research

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It's been over 50 years since the female birth control pill was introduced to the market. But years later, there's still no male equivalent. Condoms break, vasectomies are permanent, and women continue to bear the brunt of contraceptive responsibility. Recently, however, we've been hearing a lot about male birth control. But what are the actual methods being investigated? Here's a breakdown of the various approaches scientific research is taking to solve one stiff problem:

Male Birth Control : What's The Deal?

It's been over 50 years since the female birth control pill was introduced to the market. But years later, there's still no male equivalent. Condoms break, vasectomies are permanent, and women continue to bear the brunt of contraceptive responsibility. Recently, however, we've been hearing a lot about male birth control. But what are the actual methods being investigated? Here's a breakdown of the various approaches scientific research is taking to solve one stiff problem:

Hormonal Treatment

A male pill would likely employ the hormones progesterone and testosterone. All male hormonal birth control methods try to stop or slow sperm production by interfering with some step in the sperm development cycle. This creates a low sperm count, which can be reversed when the male stops using the contraceptive. Progesterone limits sperm production, but it also impairs other 'male' features, such as high muscle mass and the ability to get erections, which a limited amount of therapeutic testoterone then restores. PROS: Non-invasive; reversible CONS: Not completely effective; can cause side effects such as mood swings, loss of muscle mass, acne, and a loss of libido. ( Image: Lin Mei via Flickr)

Golden Balls

Show us a study using gold for female birth control, and we'll show you a bridge we've got for sale. This golden method of non-hormonal birth control has so far only been tested on mice, and is not wasting any money, at all. The procedure involves researchers injecting male mouse testes with a mixture containing nano-size rods of gold. A laser is then aimed at the testes, heating the nano-gold inside. The testes reach a temperature high enough to kill sperm cells, but not high enough to kill the cells that make new sperm. PROS: Reversible; no hormonal side effects; blinged-out balls. CONS: Although researchers predict few side effects, the method has not yet been approved to try on people. (Image: Erich Ferdinand via Flickr)

Sperm-Killing Gel

Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance (RISUG) involves a minor surgical procedure where the doctor makes a hole in the scrotum to locate the vas deferens (that's the duct where semen is carried) and then uses a syringe to inject about 70 milligrams of styrene maleic anhydride into it. The polymer fills the center opening of the tube. When the sperm swim through the plastic-coated vas deferens, the cells become neutralized by the compound's net positive charge and are broken down. PROS: Sperm and other fluids can still get through, avoiding the backup pressure that sometimes occurs after a vasectomy; it's reversible; no hormonal side effects; in clinical trials it's been 100% effective CONS: It's not legal or available yet in the United States. (Image: Steve A Johnson via Flickr)

Shrunken Testes, or Injections of JQ1

JQ1's name sounds right out of a science fiction novel, but the chemical compound has actually been shown to work in clinical studies on mice. When injected, JQ1 shrank the mice’s testes, reduced their sperm count, and made any sperm they did produce immobile. It functions by blocking a protein called BRDT, which is important in the process of generating new sperm. PROS: Reversible; no hormonal side effects; shown to be effective in clinical trials (on mice) CONS: Method not yet approved to be tried on humans; we're guessing most men won't want to get their balls shrunk. (Image: Jordan Schwartz via Flickr)