Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A New Era in Birth Control?

Birth control methods for women have been documented since Ancient Egyptians used honey, acacia leaves, and lint to block sperm from swimming the entire length of the vagina. In the 20th century, the usage of condoms and eventually birth control pills became common and widely accepted. The end of the 20th century saw new innovations like IUDs and hormone shots that provided more long-term birth control but also created a slew of not-so-desirable side effects. With the exception of condoms, all of the fairly reliable and reversible methods of birth control are the sole responsibility of women, but Elaine Lissner and Sujoy Guha are trying to change that.

For more than thirty years, Sujoy Guha has been working on a drug called RISUG (Reverse Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance) that has recently started clinical testing in India. Elaine Lissner brought the idea of RISUG to the United States under the name Vasalgel and is currently raising money for clinical testing. It has already proven very effective in rabbits and baboon trials are currently running. You can find out more information about donating and where they currently are in the trial process here.

The method works by injecting a gel into the vas deferens (the tube that sperm travels through) which coats the tubing and essentially tears sperm apart as it travels. The result is that ejaculation still happens as normal, but the sperm is no longer able to fertilize any eggs. Though RISUG and Vasalgel are made up of different chemicals, they work in the same way, and both are proving very reversible in clinical trials. Without intervention, the method is effective for approximately ten years, but can be reversed at anytime by another injection that simply breaks down the polymer gel and flushes it out. The result is a cheap, effective, and easily reversible procedure.

Elaine Lissner refers to vasectomies when describing the process of Vasalgel, explaining that "the procedure is similar to a no-scalpel vasectomy." This analogy between the more traditional vasectomy and the new procedure gives some insight into the creative process. The creators of Vasalgel and RISUG used a previous procedure (a vasectomy) as a pattern for creating a less-invasive, cheaper, and more reversible way to get the same result. In fact, they predict that the polymer used for the procedure will be cheaper than the syringe used to administer it.

While Vasalgel seems like it could be the perfect product, it has stumbled during clinical testing because of a lack of funding. Most new drugs get pushed through clinicals by big pharmacy companies hoping to make money on them once they are out on the market. Vasalgel, however, is not intended to make anyone rich. The parent company, Parsemus, plans on charging only enough to keep the company stable, and even want to make sure that the product is covered by insurance. Unfortunately, this means that no big investors are eager to pay for the trials. The product is currently being funded by private donations, and one donor has just agreed to match donations up to $37,000. So even though there hasn't yet been much acceptance in the pharmaceutical business, enough people are interested in the possibility of this new form of birth control to keep the studies going.

Current plans are to start clinical trials on humans late this year and, assuming all goes well, to have it available widely by mid-2016. So look for this innovative new form of birth control in a few years!


  1. I've always thought it was interesting that women were considered responsible for birth control, especially because it is much easier to render a man temporarily sterile than it is to do the same for a woman. Basically, female birth control uses artificial hormones to convince the woman's body that she's pregnant (and the placebo week is used to tell the body, "Hahaha, whoops, just kidding"). Admittedly, female birth control may be more prevalent than male birth control because the woman is the one who bears all of the physical consequences of an unintended pregnancy; however, birth control medications that are readily available to women today can have a lot of negative effects on the woman's overall health over time (studies have shown positive correlations between birth control and certain cancers--although other studies have shown the exact opposite). It has been suggested that a big part of the reason that pharmaceutical companies have not picked up the male birth control idea is that they make so much money off of female birth control; as your post points out, big investors aren't interested in much of anything that can't improve their portfolio. Hopefully, however, the common sense of male birth control will win out, and we will indeed see this product hit the market.

  2. Why wear a bullet-proof vest when you can just unload the gun? More or less the idea behind this, and I love the idea. However, I think there are a few potential issues with pushing this too far. Of course pharmaceuticals can't make much money off this, which is not a big selling point. But even more so, this targets a very specific demographic. Only couples in committed relationships will realistically benefit from this form of birth-control. Women who sleep with multiple male partners will want the fate of a potential pregnancy in her own hands; she would not be wise to trust a stranger who insists that he's had the surgery. What's more, they should both be taking preventive measures towards STDs as well as pregnancy, which this form of birth control does not prevent against.

    This is a truly wonderful discovery and I do hope it gets on the market as a great alternative to the many (as mentioned) dangerous birth control alternatives. However, I hope there is continued research and education on ways to prevent STDs and not the continued specific focus on pregnancy prevention.

    1. Brittney,

      You're definitely right that this method is most helpful to couples in committed relationships, but I think it also has a place in flings or one night stands. Just like birth control pills are useful to prevent conception in non-committed relationships, something like this could be the male (more effective than condoms) way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Of course, condoms still have their place in sex in order to prevent STDs. One thing that I didn't focus on in my post was that preliminary studies are also showing that Vasalgel prevents the transmission of HIV by essentially ripping it apart and "killing" it. This obviously doesn't help with other STDs, but it's pretty cool, anyway. So you're right. We'd probably still need condoms and women should probably not just take the word of men that they're covered, but it's certainly a great step forward!


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