The Grapevine

Could This Gel Be The First Male Contraceptive?

For those who want to avoid pregnancy, sex usually involves some method of birth control. Women have several options such as birth control pills, patches, tubal ligation, intrauterine devices, Depo-Provera shot, cervical cap, and morning-after pills.

On the other hand, options are not quite as many for men — limited to condom use and vasectomy. Though you may have heard about withdrawal i.e. the pull out method, this is not reliable enough on its own.

While researchers have been trying to develop more methods of male contraception, they have faced challenges such as the lack of funding and the difference in the biology of the sexes.

"The male produces hundreds of millions of sperms every day, and when the ejaculate comes out, there are 250 million sperm," said Michael Skinner, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University. "We could probably get away with a tenth of that and still be fertile."

While advancements regarding the male pill regularly make headlines, this week, attention shifted to what may be a new birth control gel for men. According to an announcement by the National Institutes of Health, a clinical trial will soon begin to test the gel.

The topical gel, made under the brand name Nestorone, contains a progestin compound along with a dose of testosterone. It is meant to be absorbed through the skin after being applied over the back and shoulders.

"The potential of this new gel is huge," said Dr. William Bremner of the University of Washington School of Medicine, who is helping test the gel. "There is a misperception that men are not interested in, or are even afraid of, tools to control their own fertility. We know that’s not the case."

So how exactly does it work? The progestin from the gel reduces sperm production by blocking the natural production of testosterone in the body. As the statement suggests, the count will reach extremely low or nonexistent levels.

The gel also provides a dose of testosterone so that the user does not experience any side effects from the reduced production of the hormone — these would include effects like low sex drive. 

The trial by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is set to involve over 400 couples who will help test how safe and effective it is. They will also understand how convenient it is for users as some may find it difficult to correctly and adequately apply the gel across their back. Alternatively, having a woman apply it may create other complications if this gel is absorbed through her skin as well.

It will take a long time and a lot more research before this gel could potentially end up on the market. Some experts also share concerns about reckless use, such as a man skipping out on condoms during casual sex even though the gel cannot protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

"I would not have women stop using their form of contraception even if a man is doing his part in preventing pregnancy," added Sherry Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn in Santa Monica, California.