Following this week's coverage of the reversible male contraception method, it appears that a birth control pill for men is also in the works. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center are developing what may be the first non-steroidal, oral contraceptive for men. The team of scientists, led by Dr. Debra J. Wolgemuth, discovered that low doses of a compound that interferes with retinoic acid receptors (RARs), stopped sperm production with no apparent side effects. In addition, just like the birth control pill for women, normal levels of fertility could be restored almost immediately after the dose has been ceased.

"It can be taken orally as a pill, avoiding the injection process. It also appears to have a very rapid effect on sperm production and an even more rapid recovery when fertility is desired," said Dr. Sanny S. W.Chung, associate research scientist.

During her study, Dr. Wolgemuth came across a paper by Bristol-Myers Squibb, relating to a compound that was being tested for the treatment of skin and inflammatory diseases. The paper described the compound as being "a testicular toxin" and whilst these findings made Squibb's team abandon further use of the compound, it may have been exactly what Dr. Wolgemuth needed to bring into her lab. Her team later successfully tested the drug in mice, and discovered that it caused vitamin A deficiency and a loss of function of RARalpha - perfect conditions to create infertility.

"We were intrigued," said Dr. Wolgemuth. "One company's toxin may be another person's contraceptive."

Advantages of using a non-steroidal contraception avoid side effects such as diminished libido, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and benign prostatic hyperplasia, commonly associated with steroidal hormone-based methods. Although vitamin A levels are usually linked with maintaining good eye sight, the researchers are confident that the new drug will have no effect on vision. "We have seen no side effects, so far, and our mice have been mating quite happily," said Dr. Wolgemuth.

Whilst they are having great success with their mice, the next step for Dr. Wolgemuth and her Columbia team is to make sure that the drug is safe to use on men. They will now investigate how long fertility can be stopped and then recover after administration of the drug has stopped.

"We hope that in the not so distant future, we may finally have more choices for people," said Dr. Chung.