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Study suggests potential for birth control pill for men

Researchers at the University of Iowa say they’ve stumbled on a genetic twist that could lead to a birth control pill for men.

The discovery involves an inherited disorder that made sperm unable to swim forcefully. “They could still move, but they need this special, fast motion to actually penetrate the egg, and that would be limited,” said Dr. Michael Hildebrand, a Iowa University researcher who helped lead the study.

Hildebrand believes doctors could induce the disorder in men, making them incapable of impregnating women.

The theory that this discovery could lead to a contraceptive would need to be tested in mice before it could be tried in men. Any treatment for humans would be years away.

The paper was published online Thursday by the American Journal of Human Genetics.

An outside expert who read the paper said it was interesting, but he was skeptical that the discovery could lead to a practical male contraceptive.

Dr. Dale McClure, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said he doubted the treatment could be reversed. In other words, he said, if men started taking the pills or shots, they could become permanently sterile.

McClure, who is a Seattle urologist, said researchers have worked for years to develop a male birth control pill. They’ve mainly worked with hormones that decrease the function of the testes, which make sperm. However, he said, many of those efforts have interfered with sexual functions.

McClure predicted there would be a market for a successful male birth control treatment. “Say you’re a 27-year-old gentleman and you don’t want to have a child and you don’t want to get married for a few years. It would be nice to have a contraceptive besides the condom,” he said.

McClure said Hildebrand’s proposed treatment theoretically could provide an alternative to vasectomies for men who are sure they don’t ever want to be fathers.

Hildebrand said he believes the treatment could be reversed. It would involve the introduction of antibodies, which he said the body would not continue making on its own. He said several teams have been working to develop such approaches for various treatments, but he acknowledged that they have not been tried in humans.

The new discovery traces back to research that the University of Iowa has done with colleagues in Iran. The researchers focus on hereditary hearing problems. Iranian researchers went to villages in their country where intermarriage is common, making genetic disorders more likely.

They wound up finding two families in which many men were sterile. The scientists looked into the cause and found two similar genetic disorders causing problems with the sperm’s ability to penetrate eggs.

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