The search for a birth control pill for men has had its fair share of hurdles. Over the years, pharmaceutical companies have explored a variety of experimental options, but none of them have made it to market. Recently, a research team at the University of Minnesota announced that they were working on a new type of contraceptive for men that targets the acid receptors tied to sperm production. It’s a promising development, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before it will be ready to go to market.
Thanks to a team of Biologists at the University of California at Berkeley, however, we might someday have a single contraceptive that works for both men and women.
The biologists have identified a protein receptor that rests on a sperm’s tail and moves it back and forth when exposed to the female sex hormone progesterone. That motion is what provides the sperm with the forward momentum it needs to penetrate the egg. In essence, this protein acts like a person controlling the rudder at the back of a boat. The biologists found that when the protein doesn’t detect progesterone, it fails to trigger the sperm’s tail-flapping action, making it impossible for the sperm to penetrate the egg.
The team at Berkeley discovered the interaction between the protein and progesterone by employing a pretty ingenious research technique. Because of federal regulations that prohibit the testing of sperm and eggs in the same dish, they had to test the sperm alone. To overcome this obstacle, the biologists attached a tiny electrode to a sperm’s tail, and then exposed it to different hormones to see how it would react. By analyzing the electrode data, they could determine whether or not the hormones caused the tail to move.
The next step in the process is to devise a way to trick the proteins into ignoring progesterone.
If the biologists are able to achieve this, we may be well on our way to having a unisex method of contraception. On the flip side, this discovery could pave the way for new treatments for male infertility as well.