Men’s choices are limited, but promise is on the horizon
It’s not uncommon to see conversations on women’s birth control making headlines, but where does that leave men in the family planning equation?
When it comes to innovations in male birth control, there’s a surprising dearth of procedures and products, says Donald Waller, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Waller is conducting research for California-based Revolution Contraceptives into developing a new nonhormonal contraceptive for men, Vasalgel. The gel is injected into the vas deferens to form a barrier in the duct that delivers sperm from the testes. Since the sperm are too big to get through the Vasalgel barrier, they are reabsorbed by the body instead of ejaculated. Vasalgel has the potential to be much more reversible than current vasectomy techniques.
While Vasalgel is not yet available to the general public, it’s making its way through the lengthy regulatory process (with a clinical trial scheduled for later this year) and presents an option for the future.
Waller sat down with Chicago Health to discuss the current birth control options for men, as well as what’s new in Vasalgel research.
CH: What are the most significant trends you’ve seen in male birth control in the past five years?
Waller: No new options have come on the market for men, and we’re seeing growing frustration. Men want reproductive control to go along with the reproductive responsibility they bear. Many are quite vocal about wanting to be able to plan their family and financial future.
CH: What options are available for men who are looking for solutions for birth control?
Waller: The only options are condoms, withdrawal, natural family planning and vasectomy (which is surgical and potentially permanent). But men are making use of the limited options they do have—about 500,000 American men get vasectomies each year. Between condoms and vasectomy, men are taking care of about a quarter of family planning responsibilities.
So far, there is nothing available that is both nonpermanent (like condoms) and exceedingly reliable even under typical use (like vasectomy). That needs to change.
CH: What questions should men ask their physicians when deciding on a form of male birth control?
Waller: When new methods become available, men will need to think about whether they want something permanent or temporary. Also, it’s worth thinking about whether the device or drug has exclusively local effects (just blocking sperm, for example, as Vasalgel does) or has effects throughout the body. Until new methods are available, men who are finished having children may want to take another look at vasectomy. When performed by skilled doctors, modern no-scalpel, no-needle vasectomies have an extremely low rate of side effects. A lot of men say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.
CH: What do you see on the horizon for male birth control?
Waller: It’s going to be hard to get much traction if the scale of funding doesn’t change. Right now there’s a full pipeline of early research. You hear about a new lead every once in a while in the news, but nobody is spending the multimillions per year to take the promising methods to completion. The future will really depend on public and foundation support.
Originally published in the Fall 2016 print edition
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.