Hope for 'new era' as male contraceptive pill could reach clinical trials in next five years

An expert hopes for a “new era” in contraception in the next few years, after research which could lead to a male contraceptive pill was granted over £1 million funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We've got to really step up to the plate for male contraception,” said Chris Barratt, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Dundee University’s School of Medicine, pointing to limited choices of condoms, with high dissatisfaction and failure rates, and vasectomies, which are irreversible.

"We've been waiting for a male pill forever, and it hasn’t arrived. There are lots of stories about steroid contraception for men, but there are lots of issues with that.”

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Prof Barratt and colleagues have been awarded an additional $1.7 million, after their work funded by the foundation in the last two years progressed well.

Prof Barratt. Picture: Dundee University

In the next 22 months, they hope to identify a suitable compound to use in the drug, after which might follow development and then clinical trials.

The project is one of only a handful worldwide which received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work on male contraception.

There is a “long way to go” before the drug will be available, Prof Barratt said, but knowledge has “leapt forwards” in recent years.

"The drug discovery unit in Dundee is pretty world famous for developing drugs and academic research, so we're using their resources to fast track the discovery of these compounds,” he said.

Male hormonal contraception is difficult, he added, which is one of the reasons why it is not yet available.

“Men produce 1000 sperm in a heartbeat, so they're producing more than 100 million sperm every day, and they do that continuously, 24/7,” he said.

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“Stopping all those is a big job, whereas women who ovulate only ovulate one egg per month, and you've got to stop all of them, you can’t just stop 99 per cent of them.

“But there is new technology which allows us to look at these things slightly differently. That doesn't guarantee success of course, but I think we're in a much better position now than we have been for ages.”

Researchers aim to screen thousands of compounds a week to identify suitable candidates.

They are also looking at potential side effects, in the knowledge that during previous trials on steroid contraceptives for men, side effects have been “very poorly tolerated”.

This may be an education issue about how men and women perceive side effects, Prof Barratt said.

He added: “We've been behind the game for so long, and it's just not acceptable anymore.

“I think research in this area will be game-changing, whether that's what we do or what somebody else does.”

Dr Diana Mansour, Vice President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), said evidence suggests men would be interested in a contraceptive pill, particularly those in a relationship.

A male pill was among the top ten contraceptive research priorities highlighted by the public and healthcare professionals in a 2017-18 study by the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare.

“I would welcome a new contraceptive option for men, and there are many men who would be prepared to use such a method. There have been decades of research in this area, but hormonal contraception for men remains elusive,” said Dr Mansour.

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