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Biological Chemistry

‘Hunt For The Male Pill’

October 22, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 43

Michael Torrice’s article ends with the question, “So how long will it be before men can have their own birth control pill?” coupled with a quote from John K. Amory of the University of Washington that “a decade sounds about right, and most scientists working on nonhormonal methods agree” (C&EN, Sept. 24, page 35). As Amory himself admits, such predictions based on promising observations in mice and some other animals have been propounded for the past 40 years and were shown to be totally unrealistic.

In my opinion (lecture presented on July 15, 2010, to Royal Society, London) they are even more unrealistic in today’s risk-averse climate and because of the pharmaceutical industry’s focus on diseases of the geriatric segments of affluent countries. For instance, after demonstrating as early as 1970 (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.169.3949.941) that it would take 14 to 20 years to bring a reversible male contraceptive to the Food & Drug Administration for approval, I concluded in my book “The Politics of Contraception” (W. W. Norton & Co.) that “every postpubescent American female reading this chapter in 1979 will be past the menopause before she can depend on her sexual partner to use his Pill.” The biggest problem is the fact that the reproductive span of a young man is two to three times longer than that of a 20-year-old woman, who, for instance, will not ask whether continued use of her Pill would affect her fertility at age 55 or even later, whereas many a 20-year-old man would require a guaranteed answer before he would reach for his Pill.

Providing an epidemiologically valid assurance to this and other concerns, notably with respect to sexual potency, would be exceedingly expensive, time-consuming, and open to all kinds of litigious pressures because erectile dysfunction and prostate gland problems increase with advanced age and would be blamed by many men on their Pill rather than on the facts of life.

This economic reality has led the pharmaceutical industry to totally abandon any work on male contraception. And it is invariably glossed over through shameless grantsmanship or shameful naïveté by academic scientists who in their animal research at times make some exciting scientific observation that they then prognosticate as a practical and reversible new male contraceptive in humans, ignoring the fact that such work would take easily two or more decades (thus cannibalizing any patent protection) and cost well over $1 billion in today’s dollars for realization. Who, exactly, would foot that bill?

Carl Djerassi
San Francisco



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