A male contraceptive pill is one step closer after scientists make a breakthrough in drug testing.
Scottish researchers have begun studying around 13,000 compounds to find those which are safe enough for men to take.
They developed a robotic screening system which can rapidly assess how the chemicals effect human sperm.
The robot speeds up the process of drug hunting ‘several thousand-fold’ and could be a ‘game changer’, scientists said.
They are looking for compounds which block sperm motility so it cannot reach the woman’s egg for fertilisation.
A male contraceptive pill is one step closer after scientists make a breakthrough in drug testing after Scottish researchers developed a robotic screening system which can rapidly assess how the chemicals effect human sperm (pictured)
The team at the University of Dundee reported their first study which shows it is possible to find effective agents that halt the sperm in its tracks using the robotic system
The team at the University of Dundee reported their first study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, today.
They have shown that it is possible to find effective agents that halt the sperm in its tracks using the robotic system. The findings published in the journal eLife.
Further work will be done to investigate if any of these are suitable for long term use in the male.
Lead researcher Chris Barratt, Professor of reproductive medicine in the School of Medicine, said: ‘This is a breakthrough in technology for the area.
‘It allows us for the first time to assess in large numbers how compounds can affect sperm function.
‘Surprisingly there has been no effective, reversible and widely available form of contraception developed for the male since the condom and, as such, the burden falls largely to the female.
‘Finding an effective male contraceptive would be a major step in addressing that inequality.’
There is an urgent need to develop new methods for male contraception, however drug discovery efforts have been hampered for a variety of reasons.
There is a relatively poor understanding of human sperm biology, and the proteins inside it which allow it carry out key functions once it leaves the male.
The researchers at Dundee, led by Professor Barratt and Dr Paul Andrews, are just some of the international scientists working towards finding a safe and effective male contraceptive.
The Dundee team screened one of the world’s largest collections of previously approved and clinically tested compounds, around 13,000 in total.
The ReFRAME collection is a library that scientists can access in the hunt for drugs for diseases and other uses.
The robot-run system uses a fast microscope and image-processing tool that closely tracks the movement of human sperm.
It enables scientists to see the effects of drugs with precision that would be difficult for them to do.
Dr Andrews said: ‘The conventional way to test drugs for contraceptive activity is prohibitively time-consuming.
‘Through the hard work of the multi-disciplinary research team in Dundee, we have managed to develop a disruptive technology platform we hope will be a game changer.
‘This new system speeds up the process of drug hunting several thousand-fold.
‘By using live human sperm and examining their behaviour, or phenotype, in the presence of drugs and other chemicals, we hope to circumvent the need to second-guess which proteins are important for the cellular processes underlying sperm’s fertilisation capacity.’
Contraception is a critical area for research as, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are 89million unintended pregnancies and 48million abortions every year.
Currently, men who want to control their fertility have limited options – condoms or vasectomies, surgical procedures to block sperm.
There are myriad forms of birth control for women, which come with complicated and disruptive side effects.
Meanwhile, trials across the globe are studying the effectiveness of a gel rubbed into a man’s shoulder every day which reduces sperm count.
HOW WAS THE WOMEN’S CONTRACEPTIVE APPROVED?
The first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as contraception in the 1960.
This was despite very early clinical trials in 1956 in Puerto Rico (because there was an existing network of birth control clinics there) finding that 17 per cent of women had significantly unpleasant side effects.
These included dizziness and nausea, as well as headaches and vomiting. Some women withdrew from the trials because they felt so ill.
The Ministry of Health nevertheless approved its availability on the NHS after varying results of clinical trials – the first, in Birmingham, saw 14 of the 48 participating women become pregnant due to a wrong dosage.
Doctors regarding it as completely safe led to half a million British women in the first three years.
More research in the following years linked the use of the pill to an increased risk of breast cancer, strokes, heart attacks and blood clots.
But the FDA said that even if the pill caused such events, such as medical reports of heart failure and pulmonary tuberculosis, the rate of them — 1.3 out of 100,000 users — was much lower than the rate of women who would die from pregnancy complications —36.9 out of 100,000 pregnant women.