The Surprising Sources of Next‑Gen Contraception


May 24, 2017


Thor may look like he can impregnate with one smouldering glance. But there’s a plot twist.

Researchers may have found the secret to the next generation of contraceptive medicine in an unlikely place: the thunder god vine.

In other news, the god of thunder is less virile than we all supposed.

Pristimerin, a chemical extract from the plant Tripterygium wilfordii — known in Chinese medicine as the thunder god vine — was found to inhibit the “power kick” of sperm tails, which helps the male reproductive cells drive through the zona pelucida, a membrane that envelops egg cells. Lupeol, a chemical extract from mango (also from dandelion root), had a similar inhibitive effect.

Researchers say these extracts are promising alternatives to hormonal birth control.

“Because these two plant compounds block fertilization at very, very low concentrations — about 10 times lower than levels of levonorgestrel in Plan B — they could be a new generation of emergency contraceptive we nicknamed ‘molecular condoms,'” said Polina Lishko, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology, who led the research team that discovered the anti-fertility properties of the two chemicals. “If one can use a plant-derived, non-toxic, non-hormonal compound in lesser concentration to prevent fertilization in the first place, it could potentially be a better option.”

  Read more about contraception on The Swaddle.

In the decades since The Pill was first introduced, hormonal birth control proliferated to become the most commonly used form of birth control along with condoms. In recent years, however, its popularity has waned due to side effects.

Leaf compounds from the thunder god vine have been used to control fertility (and treat rheumatoid arthritis) for centuries in Chinese medicine practices; researchers were put on to pristimerin and lupeol after perusing books on the folk remedies of indigenous peoples around the world, after they mapped the chemical drivers of sperm tail action.

But don’t look for mango-flavoured non-hormonal birth control on the market soon; these extracts come from wild plants in concentrations too low for cost-effective extraction. In the meantime, researchers are searching for less expensive sources and testing the contraceptive effects of these extracts on primates. So for now, we wait for the day every woman can enjoy a worry-free ride on the god of thunder’s vine. #thankyouthor


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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