Exploring Contraception Innovations for Men

In an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancy, researchers continue working to develop new safe and effective methods of contraception for men. In one approach men, ironically, are injected with testosterone — the hormone that helps make sperm.

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In an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancy, researchers continue working to develop new, safe and effective methods of contraception. While most are variations of current contraceptive procedures, there are some truly high-tech innovations on the horizon. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

The most unique innovations have to do with male contraception. Nothing is available yet but there's a lot of promising research. Endocrinologist Christina Wang specializes in male reproduction. She's trying to figure out how to stop men from producing sperm. Ironically, this is done by injecting men with testosterone, the hormone that helps make sperm.

Dr. CHRISTINA WANG: You give testosterone from outside of your own body. Then it will stop the production of testosterone by the testes.

NEIGHMOND: Testosterone is given along with a female contraceptive agent, a progestin. Studies have shown that these two hormones actually reduce sperm count to less than one million sperm per milliliter. That may sound like a lot but not when you consider that normal is about 40 million. Dr. Wang.

Dr. WANG: There is a big study in China that is giving injections of testosterone every month and they have a thousand men initially enrolled into this study, and each person is going to be followed for at least two years to have enough patients and year--to make sure that this method is efficacious.

NEIGHMOND: And if it does indeed work, then a male hormonal contraceptive could be on the market within five years. Further down the line but currently in research is the notion of inhibiting sperm from maturing. Dr. David Archer is an OB/GYN with the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Virginia. He says that would be a big breakthrough along with the development of something similar for women--stopping the maturation of the egg.

Dr. DAVID ARCHER (OB/GYN, Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine): It is plausible that that also could be targeted to keep it from undergoing a stage where it finally matures and releases what is known as a second polar body, which is an ability for the egg to now reduce itself to half of the normal chromosome number in anticipation of being fertilized by the sperm that carries the other half of the chromosomes.

NEIGHMOND: But stopping sperm or egg maturation is only theoretical at this point. Most of the new contraceptives are variations on what's been available for years. These are standard hormonal contraceptives that have been changed in the way they're administered. Archer.

Dr. ARCHER: So we have a vaginal ring that releases estrogen and progesterone. We have a transdermal patch that releases estrogen and progesterone. And we have a play on a variety of injectable or implantable devices that release either estrogen, plus a progestin or progestin only.

NEIGHMOND: One of those is a medicated intrauterine device or IUD. The non-medicated IUD contains copper which is toxic to sperm. The medicated IUD releases hormones that create a hostile environment in the uterus and also block the sperm from entering the cervix. These devices can remain implanted for five years, but still the most popular contraceptive is the pill. There's a new version that basically prevents menstruation for three months. The pill called Seasonale is taken every day for 84 days. Women do not menstruate during this time. After 84 days, they stop taking the pill for one week and that's when they menstruate. Seasonale's been on the market for two years now and women who use it say they appreciate not having symptoms of PMS every month.

Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And that's our health news for this morning.

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