Stateside boffins think that they may have delivered a long-sought boon: a male oral contraceptive without undesirable side effects.
There are already drugs which men can take to render sex a mildly athletic recreational activity rather than a potentially life-altering financial and emotional commitment, but these generally have disadvantages severe enough that they have failed to catch on. Their effectiveness sometimes varies across different ethnic groups, for instance, and they occasionally take away their own purpose by removing desire as well as consequences.
But then Professor Debra Wolgemuth noticed a study by a drug company into the effects of a compound being tested as a skin treatment. The drug company lost interest in the stuff after noting that it seemed to affect the male wedding tackle in such a way as to prevent reproduction.
But "we were intrigued," says Wolgemuth. "One company's toxin may be another person's contraceptive."
The compound works by interfering with retinoic acid receptors (RARs), whose action is necessary for a chap to produce sperm: it is known as a RAR antagonist. According to Wolgemuth and her colleagues, tests in mice indicate that it could be the male pill at last. And temporary RAR-busting Jaffa-isation appears to cause no trouser-department floppening or other undesirable side effects.
"We have seen no side effects, so far, and our mice have been mating quite happily," reports the prof.
"It can be taken orally as a pill, avoiding the injection process. It also appears to have a very rapid effect on sperm production and an even more rapid recovery when fertility is desired," adds Wolgemuth's fellow researcher Dr Sanny Chung.
More trials and tests will be needed, of course, but the prospect of a working pill for blokes seems to be on the cards "in the not so distant future", according to Chung.
The details of the study are published here in the journal Endocrinology. ®