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Will male contraception be derived from Cupid’s arrow?

ByTom Edwick

Feb 14, 2018

Heterosexual men, are you struggling with what to buy your female partner this Valentine’s Day? Look no further. Simply get your lover the latest issue of their favourite scientific publication, the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. They will be thrilled to read that a potential male contraceptive is on on the horizon, based on a recent study published in the journal.

The study, led by Gunda Georg and Gustavo Blanco, aimed to create a male contraceptive based on a compound that affects a protein found in sperm.

The contraceptive came from an unlikely source: a poison traditionally used to tip the arrows of African warriors – not quite Cupid’s arrow. The compound, called ouabain, is a plant extract found in two African plants. When used as a poison, ouabain can be lethal by causing heart failure. This is because it inhibits a certain family of proteins.

These proteins transport ions across the cell membrane, a process which is necessary for normal organ function. It was discovered that one of these proteins, known as α4, is uniquely found in the sperm cells of male rats. The protein is expressed in the tails of individual sperms and plays a vital role in motility and other processes necessary for fertility. This makes the protein a potential target for a male contraceptive.

Ouabain targets this protein, but as it is also toxic for the heart; Georg and Blanco’s study aimed to create non-toxic ouabain derivatives that still targeted α4 and successfully reduced fertility.

They created a few viable compounds, the most successful being compound 25. Beyond the cool, sci-fi sounding name, this compound worked as intended: it caused 50-60 per cent sperm mobility inhibition, and reduced hyperactivation (a type of sperm motility that is necessary to penetrate the egg) by roughly 70 per cent.

As with all potential medicines, further research is needed to fine-tune the compound and maximise its effectiveness, and the lengthy process of scaling it up for human trials means it could be a long way off. However, other studies on potential male contraceptives look promising.

Research like this is welcome. Currently, women shoulder most of the burden, with 70 per cent of contraceptives used being female focused. The combined pill is the most utilised form of female contraception; however, many women experience adverse side-effects like nausea, mood swings, or depression. Furthermore, options for men are distinctly lacking, with the two main options being condoms or vasectomies. Condoms can break, and vasectomies are invasive and difficult to reverse, so the sooner an effective and reversible alternative comes along, the better.

The authors say more experiments will be needed to determine how the ouabain-derived contraceptive will be delivered. Nevertheless, the next time you think you have been struck by Cupid’s arrow, it might be worth checking it wasn’t an arrow full of ouabain.

Image credit: Bryancalabro via Wikimedia Commons

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