Scientists Develop a Promising Contraceptive That’s Non‑Hormonal in Nature
Most long-term contraceptive options today are inordinately geared towards changing the physiology of people with uteruses by altering their hormone-producing mechanisms. A new method could change that. In a study published last week in Science Translational Medicine, researchers write that there could be an antibody-based alternative to hormonal contraception, which binds and “traps” sperm to prevent it from traveling beyond vaginal mucus and into the reproductive tract.
The findings have significant implications for the domain of birth control. Existing options work by releasing hormones to stop the release of eggs from the ovaries. But these are riddled with complications and side effects arising from hormonal disturbances — they are also linked with depression, higher risks of blood clots, and even breast cancer.
Although there are dozens of options available, many women opt out of trying several of them because of the side effects, or because of how cumbersome they are to use. “Many women risk unintended pregnancy because of medical contraindications or dissatisfaction with contraceptive methods, including real and perceived side effects associated with the use of exogenous hormones,” the study observes.
While condoms are currently the most common non-hormonal form of contraception, they require correct usage and as a result, many people prefer a method that would give them more control in the process rather than relying on a partner to use condoms perfectly.
The search for better, less invasive, and more convenient birth control options has thus been on for a long time, and while a few options showed promise, research progress is slow because birth control as a field has a gender bias and isn’t as well funded. A lack of interest in improving the decreased quality of life that hormonal birth control options cause is also to blame. Researchers tend to focus on things that affect everyone, not just women, according to experts.
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Reports have also shown how the same dizzying array of side effects that hormonal birth control causes in women and people with uteruses is a dealbreaker when it comes to birth control options for men, thereby leaving hormonal birth control as the only reliable option for decades. With immunocontraception, things could change for the better, and many people may have more agency over their bodies as a result.
In the current study, researchers used Y-shaped immune cells that work as anti-sperm antibodies to mimic an existing condition called immune infertility. In people with immune infertility, their reproductive tracts produce anti-sperm antibodies that bind sperm in mucus and prevent them from reaching the egg. Researchers engineered similar antibodies with more binding properties and found them to be 8 times more effective.
Specifically, the antibodies only latch on to sperms due to a unique characteristic that keeps them from binding to any other cells or tissues. Scientists add, however, that much more research is needed to determine their safety. So far, the method was tested in sheep and was found to be over 99% effective in stopping sperm.
In humans, researchers suggest that the antibodies could be delivered into the vagina using products like an intravaginal ring (IVR) that would release the antibodies promptly, during the fertility window.
Besides potentially causing fewer side effects and health risks, such a method if successful could allow a faster return to fertility when people choose to conceive at any point.
“Rather than altering physiological mechanisms underpinning fertility such as hormones, topical immunocontraception should afford a rapid return to fertility, unlike the months of delay experienced by some women even after they have discontinued the use of long-acting hormonal contraceptives,” the paper notes.