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Male birth control pill from toxic substance
February 3, 2018, 4:21 pm

Women have a wealth of options when it comes to oral contraceptives, but finding an effective birth control pill for men has long been a chimera. Researchers at the University of Minnesota in the US say they have now found that a modified form of a poisonous plant extract could serve as an oral contraceptive for men, as it has been found to stop sperm motility in male rats (no inferences implied).

The extract called ouabain — derived from seeds of a variety of long-stemmed African woody vine plants — is a potentially toxic substance that can in high doses cause cardiac arrest. The extract was at once used by African warriors to tip the heads of their arrows and spears during hunting and warfare.  Today, ouabain is sometimes used in low doses by the hospitals for the treatment of certain heart conditions as it helps to control blood pressure and heart rate.

Ouabain works by inhibiting sub-units of certain proteins called Na,K-ATPases found in cell membranes and in heart tissues, as well as in adult sperm cells. Although previous studies have indicated that ouabain could reduce fertility in men, it was not seen as a viable male contraceptive as it could also cause severe heart damage.

By testing a number of different ouabain modifications, scientists at John Hopkins have now been able to find a compound that can selectively target Na,K-ATPase subunits in sperm cells of male rats and thereby reduce their motility, without affecting the protein sub-units in heart tissues. Poor motility can hinder sperm's ability to travel through the female reproductive tract and fertilize an egg.

The researchers also found that the effect of the modified form of ouabain was reversible and that any sperm cells produced after treatment with the compound would not be affected.

The researchers noted that though further studies were needed before any conclusions can be made about the use of the compound as an oral contraceptive for men, so far the research has been encouraging.

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