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Male birth control: Promising clinical studies underway, but funding & research is limited

There’s advancing science that may provide men with groundbreaking contraceptive options.  (SBG){p}{/p}
There’s advancing science that may provide men with groundbreaking contraceptive options. (SBG)

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. (SBG) — Women are inundated with choices when it comes to birth control, from pills to devices. But there’s advancing science that may provide men with groundbreaking contraceptive options as well. Spotlight on America discovered the problem is research into male birth control has been slowed by a lack of funding.

Ashlie Gilbert went through a traumatic experience with her birth control method. As Spotlight on America reported earlier this year, Gilbert's Paragard IUD broke inside of her body. That left her facing surgery and even the potential of never being able to have children. After her painful ordeal, Gilbert started to look at other methods of contraception, but told Spotlight on America she was frustrated with the options. "Just the side effects and potential complications, I don't want anything to do with any of this," Gilbert said. She's just one of millions of women who have spoken out about problems with birth control, ranging from side effects of hormonal pills to broken and failing IUDs.

When Gilbert started looking for options that would let her partner take on some of the responsibility for preventing pregnancy, she told us the search was frustratingly short.

"There's nothing out there for men besides condoms," Ashlie Gilbert told us. "It's just not fair that this burden is placed on women."

Spotlight on America started looking into male contraceptive options, exploring where the research stands today. We found the effort to balance the burden when it comes to family planning has been slow due to limited research and funding. Our team examined the federal government's clinical trial data and found less than 30 studies since 2005 have looked at birth control for men. By comparison, an issue like erectile dysfunction currently lists more than 500 studies.

But leaders in the field, like Dr. Brian Nguyen, an Ob-Gyn and assistant professor with the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, are pushing toward reproductive equity. Dr. Nguyen is part of a team conducting clinical trials with the Center for Male Contraceptive Research and Development in California.

"It's unfortunate that a lot of the contraceptive research has continued to place the burden of preventing unplanned pregnancy on women," Dr. Brian Nguyen told Spotlight on America. "We know for a fact that men do want to be involved but don't have enough options."

Right now, the center is actively testing three hormonal birth control options for men:

  1. A long-lasting injection for pregnancy prevention
  2. A Dimethandrolone Undecanote daily pill for male contraception
  3. A hormone gel containing NES and T, designed to be a reversible method of sperm suppression

The hormone gel study is currently recruiting volunteers throughout the country, with testing sites already up and running in LA, Seattle, Norfolk and other cities.

While it appears promising research is underway, there is a problem when it comes to funding. According to Dr. Nguyen, there are no pharmaceutical companies currently funding male contraception. That’s been the case for quite some time.

Spotlight on America's analysis of federal data shows it's been almost 15 years since a major pharmaceutical company funded studies into male birth control. We reached out to two major players in the industry that have previously funded this type of research. Pfizer confirmed they are not currently funding any studies for male contraception. Merck didn't respond to our questions. Dr. Nguyen told us many pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in this type of research, in part because there's an incorrect bias that men won't use the options, meaning they won't be profitable for big companies.

But that's not slowing down organizations like the Male Contraceptive Initiative and its Executive Director Heather Vahdat. In the absence of interest from big Pharma, MCI is teaming up with universities, other non-profits and the federal government to keep development on this front moving along.

"I think we just lost sight of the fact that having more male options actually helps everyone including women as well," Male Contraceptive Initiative Executive Director Heather Vahdat said. "We're trying to help clear that pipeline and move things forward."

Vahdat points out that male birth control isn't just about contraception. She told us it can have global effects far beyond family planning. According to her organization, access to and use of contraceptives has impacts including, "eliminating health disparities, helping people achieve educational goals, reducing poverty, decreasing gender inequalities, developing more sustainable production and consumption patterns, and more."

The Male Contraceptive Institute, or MCI, is the second largest funder of male birth control research behind the US government, but Vahdat says they're still only able to funnel a little over two million dollars into the work each year.

Though funding is a struggle, Vahdat points to research from MCI that shows there is a market for male contraception. According to a 2019 survey:

There is a potential market of 17 million men who are seeking contraception that fits their lifestyle and relationship:

  • 89% of men report it’s important for their contraceptive method to be reversible
  • 85% of participants want to prevent their partner from getting pregnant
  • 82% of men whose partners experienced an unplanned pregnancy in the past are interested in new methods of male contraception

"Young men want to be able to feel like they are protecting themselves," Vahdat said. "Men say actually either 'I am actively looking for this. I have a partner I wish I could help transition the burden from, or I've been left off the hook because I don't have to choose.’"

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Her hope is that choice will soon be on the table for couples to decide among themselves who takes contraception and at what point. Vahdat is optimistic, though she adds there's a running joke among those in the field that male contraception has been 10 years away for 50 years.

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