All Things Considered

A male birth control pill? U of M study is entering new phase

Researchers are hopeful they can create a pill that is effective, reversible and side effect free.

Birth Control Pills
A one-month dosage of hormonal birth control pills.
Rich Pedroncelli | AP 2016

A recent New York Times opinion piece said that for researchers working on a male birth control pill, their work has never been more crucial than in a post-Roe America. And recent surveys show that an increasing number of men are interested in pharmaceutical contraceptives.

University of Minnesota research on a male birth control pill could soon give them that option. The project recently completed studies in mice and plans to begin human trials this fall.

Host Tom Crann spoke with Gunda Georg, regents professor in the department of medicinal chemistry, about what a male birth control pill could look like.

Do you agree that the fall of Roe vs. Wade has added urgency to your work?

I totally agree. I also read, I think it was in the New York Times as well, that requests for vasectomies have gone up in the country. So I think there is the realization that men need to participate even more in contraception.

Tell us what you've developed and how it would work.

They call it YCT529. And from a science point of view, this is an inhibitor of a protein called retinoic acid receptor alpha. Our collaborator, Debra Wolgemuth at Columbia University, many years ago identified that if you knock out this particular protein in mice, the male mice become infertile. And so we're trying to replicate that, of course, with a pharmacological approach. And what our collaborator showed was that in mice mating studies, this was 99 percent effective. So really, it is very similar to the female birth control, but ours is non-hormonal.

What you've developed here is a male birth control pill that is 99 percent effective, but it does not render the person who takes it infertile permanently. For example, if you stopped taking it, it would stop being effective?

Absolutely. You want something to induce infertility and, after the drug is disconnected, you want to return to full fertility. And Debra was able to show that that's actually the case.

You've been working on this for several years, has there been enough funding, enough resources and interest to move this along? Or has it been harder to fund male birth control than female birth control?

Yeah, you're bringing up a really good point. About 20 years ago, major pharma discontinued research into a male birth control pill. They continue to work on female birth control, but not on male.

Why do you think that is?

There are probably a lot of reasons. Some people think it is a bias, that men may not want to take that responsibility. But I'm more optimistic than people who say that.

Of course, it's a risky business. When you develop a drug for a disease, you can tolerate some side effects. When you are developing a birth control pill for males or females, the tolerance for side effects is very low because you're treating, basically, healthy people. From a perspective of the bottom line of a pharmaceutical company, it's maybe too high risk.

Although I have to say I'm not totally pessimistic that they might not eventually come into the picture. We were able to license our compounds to a startup company, YourChoice Therapeutics. They have raised $15 million, which is fantastic. That's an incredible team that's helping to move this forward to the clinic.

So once they have generated phase one clinical trials, which we're planning for at the end of the year, I think if we can show it's effective, reversible and, of course, side-effect-free, maybe the bigger players might be coming in at that time.

Correction (July 26, 2022): An earlier version of this story misspelled Debra Wolgemuth's name. The story has been updated.