When it comes to birth control, men pretty much have two options: condoms and vasectomies. But is that finally about to change?
The results of a new study, published Tuesday in Basic and Clinical Andrology, are giving us a reason to believe that we might someday have a real solution to the age-old problem of male contraception. The potential answer to our prayers is Vasalgel, a gel that essentially provides an easily reversed vasectomy.
While there have been many attempts to develop new methods, the current choices leave a lot to be desired. Surgical vasectomies are effective but difficult to undo, and condoms are good for protecting against STIs but annoying to use and not foolproof in preventing pregnancies.
In practical terms, this means the burden of contraception typically falls on women, who themselves have an array of imperfect choices — many of which rely on hormones and can have unpleasant side effects.
That’s why the prospect of something for men that isn’t permanent and doesn’t rely on hormones is so exciting. So what exactly is Vasalgel? It’s deceptively simple. Basically it’s a polymer gel that’s injected into the vas deferens, the duct that carries sperm from the testicles to the urethra. The gel forms a little filter that prevents sperm from moving through, but still allows other water-soluble molecules to flow — thus avoiding any kind of painful buildup.
It works on the same principle as a vasectomy: if you can stop sperm from being ejaculated, there will be no pregnancy. But the potential magic of Vasalgel is that, unlike a vasectomy, it may be easy to reverse it. All it requires is an injection of a baking soda solution to dissolve the gel blockade.
Previous research on rabbits showed the gel was safe and effective at stopping sperm over a year-long period. This new study looked at what happened when the gel was flushed out. The research team did the reversal procedure on seven rabbits (each of whom had been sperm-free for 14 months). They found that sperm returned quickly to their semen.
The sperm’s concentration and motility (essentially their ability to swim well) returned to the same levels they had been before the gel was inserted. These are two important markers of fertility. An evaluation of the vasa deferentia also found there was minimal damage to the tissue. Though in some cases, there was some residual gel or some minor tissue inflammation.
We’re still a long way from this being available to human men as a convenient form of contraception. There are obstacles beyond human trials the safety of this procedure — it’s an open question whether the pharmaceutical industry will embrace this kind of shakeup. Fortunately in the U.S. this technology is being developed by the nonprofit Parsemus Foundation, who plans to distribute it widely at a low cost.
This is a small step in what could ultimately be a huge leap forward for men — and the women they have sex with.