Men's revolutionary new birth control option shows promise

A new injectible gel, Vasalgel, is touted as an IUD for men.
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A new injectible gel, Vasalgel, is touted as an IUD for men.

A new contraceptive option that is effective and reversible is in the pipeline for men.

Traditionally, options for men have not only been limited, they have been problematic. When used alone, spermicide is not very effective, while male contraceptive studies have been halted because of concerns about severe side-effects, including depression and mood changes, injection site pain, increased libido and acne.

While women have endured similar side-effects for decades, scientists said they found the risks of the male pill "outweighed the potential benefits to the study participants".

This has meant options for men have been restricted to the condom or a vasectomy. 

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Professor Rob McLachlan from Prince Henry's Institute of Medical Research at Monash University and Andrology Australia says neither option is ideal.

"Condoms tend to be misused or not used – they do have a failure rate substantially more than the female pill," McLachlan says. "The vasectomy is very effective, but it has to be regarded as irreversible."

Something not commonly known about vasectomies, McLachlan reveals, is that about 1 per cent of men experience chronic discomfort.

Recognising the limited options for men, the researchers of the new study wanted to evaluate a new injectible gel, Vasalgel, touted as an IUD for men.

The idea is that a polymer gel is injected into the vas deferens – the tube where sperm flows – blocking the sperm from getting through. When the man wishes to reverse the procedure a second injection "flushes" the gel out of their system.

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Vasalgel was injected into 16 monkeys which were then returned to their housing with female breeding monkeys "with a successful reproductive history".

Two years later the researchers found that the injection "was effective in preventing conception in a free-living, group environment. Complications were few and similar to those associated with traditional vasectomy".

Lead study author Dr Catherine VandeVoort, of the California National Primate Research Centre, told The Guardian: "Men's options for contraception have not changed much in decades. There's vasectomy, which is poorly reversible, and condoms.

"If they knew they could get a reliable contraceptive that could also be reversed I think it would be appealing to them."

VandeVoort added: "They wouldn't have to worry about it on a day-to-day basis. This would be more akin to an IUD in women."

McLachlan believes it shows promise.

"It would be great to have something better than a condom and reversible, unlike a vasectomy," he says.

But he notes there have been previous attempts to create a similar product.

"Hopefully this is an advancement on the work done by others 10 to 15 years ago," Professor McLachlan says, but first it has to be studied in humans.

"There are differences," he explains, "and, most critically, it has to be reversible and free of side-effects. That's the trick for this."

Although McLachlan says it is "fantastic in principle", he says there is a way to go before it is on the market.

"Don't expect an easy or quick answer," he says, explaining that the cost and size of human trials are "massive".

"You have to show it's effective and safe and then you have to scale it up," he says. "It's a long journey – it's a 10-year journey."

Then there is the question of whether men will inject such a product. They have been accused of being unable to handle the side-effects of birth control women have endured for decades.

McLachlan says such accusations are unfair and unwarranted.

"People need to appreciate that couples and men would like additional options ... there is a market for it," he says.

"Men do care."

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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