By Alan Bavley, The Kansas City Star
3:34 PM EST, March 7, 2012
Women may say, "It's about time." Guys may have the same reaction.
After many overly optimistic predictions, a male version of the pill may truly be in sight. A team at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, a nationally recognized center of research into male contraceptives, is working to be among the first to put a new generation of products on the market.
Joseph Tash, a reproductive biologist at KU, has spent a decade tinkering with a chemical compound called H2-gamendazole that keeps sperm from developing in the testes. Men taking a gamendazole "pill" would essentially be shooting blanks.
The expectation is that men on the KU pill would experience no change in their libido and, if they stopped taking it, would regain full fertility within a few weeks.
Tash's work is part of a promising array of new birth control methods for men that are under development in laboratories or already being tested. These contraceptives are arriving more than 50 years after the female birth control pill revolutionized relations between the sexes and gave women more control over their lives.
Outdated attitudes that birth control was women's work, along with the technical challenges — women release just one egg per month, but men produce 1,000 sperm per second — have slowed development of new male contraceptives. Recent investments in research appear to be paying off.
Men already are testing contraceptives based on hormones that are analogous to the contraceptive pills women take. Meanwhile, researchers such as Tash are working on compounds that target sperm production or activity directly without affecting men's hormones.
Tash is confident enough about gamendazole that he's getting ready to ask the Food and Drug Administration what additional studies he'll need to do before he can start trying it on human subjects.
He'll have to meet a high safety standard for a drug that healthy men would be taking regularly for a long time; FDA approval, if it goes that far, is perhaps a decade away. So far, the compound's safety has checked out in rabbits, mice, rats and monkeys.
The prospect of a male pill raises plenty of questions: Will men be willing to take it? Will women trust men to take it? Will it have any effect on the divisive issues of birth control?
Contraception for men has long been limited to a small and dismal set of options: condoms, vasectomy, interruption of intercourse. But that hasn't kept increasing numbers of men from shouldering responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute, which does research on reproductive health, traces this change in behavior to the 1980s, when more men started using condoms.
The trend by couples to delay having children had begun, and that created a greater need for contraception. But not all women were able or willing to use contraceptive pills or IUDs. Condoms became a regular part of marriages and long-term relationships.
The '80s also was the era of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases; condoms became a routine part of safe sex.
"Condoms moved from behind the counter in the drugstore to out front, and so did our attitudes," Lindberg said.
In 1982, only 52 percent of sexually experienced women reported ever having had sex with a partner who used a condom. By 2006, it had climbed to 93 percent of women.
"Practically every woman has used a condom now," Lindberg said. "That's a phenomenal social change."
Even so, the proportion of women who said their most recent sex partner used a condom — about one in five — hasn't risen in the past decade.
Elaine Lissner, an advocate who runs the Male Contraception Information Project, thinks more men would use birth control if they had better alternatives.
"To reach more men, you have to have something more attractive than the current choices. Plenty of men already are stepping up to the plate. More would if there was something better," she said. "Men deserve something better."
How will women react?
While men appear ready for a pill of their own, it's not clear how women will react.
Women surveyed in Scotland, South Africa and China expressed almost unanimous confidence in their partners' reliability.
Ajay Nangia, a urologist on Joseph Tash's team at the University of Kansas Medical School, has been asking people, about 300 so far, about their attitudes toward a male pill. He hasn't found quite that level of support.
"Do men trust themselves to take it and do women trust the men? Men do trust themselves. Women trust men, but not as much," Nangia said. "It depends on the stage of their relationship."
That suggests a male pill may not change the prospects of men who aren't in stable, long-term relationships.
As Elaine Lissner of the Male Contraception Information Project, said: "If you don't trust a guy enough to believe he's on the pill, there should be a condom."
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