Health and Science

Here’s why there might never be a successful birth control pill for men

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With love in the air for Valentine's Day earlier this week, contraception might be on the minds of many. But while the development of contraceptives aimed at men, rather than women, is gaining ground, interest in male birth control from large pharmaceutical companies just isn't there, according to one expert.

"Big pharma has largely lost interest in the development of male contraceptives," Elaine Lissner, founder of the Parsemus Foundation, told CNBC via e-mail. Her California-based organization is aimed at funding medical research that has failed to find the support of the wider pharmaceutical industry.

One such project is Vasalgel, a contraceptive gel that is injected into men to impede the flow of sperm. The effect of the treatment can be countered with a second injection. Vasalgel gained media recognition earlier this month after the release of a study demonstrating that the drug had been successful in monkeys. Despite the project having over 30,000 people signed up to receive updates and, according to Lissner, an "overwhelmingly positive" public response, it had "not tried to get pharmaceutical companies to support the research."

This was because the project did not tick the right boxes for big pharma. Lissner explained that "in for-profit companies, a daily pill or monthly method (of contraception) would be most appealing, since it entails many years of continued payment." Vasalgel is a long term treatment and therefore does not fit this remit. Lisser added that "the development of male contraception may also interfere with the income stream that pharmaceutical companies receive from female contraceptives, cannibalizing their current market."

Contraceptives aimed at men have met other stumbling blocks. One study last year into hormone-based contraception in men revealed severe side effects including a link to depression. One participant committed suicide - though this is not believed to be linked to the drug that was being tested.

Other examples of contraceptive methods aimed at men currently in development include tablets such as the Clean Sheets Pill and Gendarussa, which aim prevent unwanted pregnancies by preventing the release of semen and its ability to fertilize an egg, respectively. The Clean Sheets Pill could also help prevent the spread of HIV.

Vasalgel is hoping to gain regulatory approval to begin human clinical trials in 2018.

CNBC contacted several major drugs companies about their interest in contraceptives aimed at men, but all either had no-one in house able to discuss the topic or else declined to comment.

Dr. Mario Festin, medical officer at the World Health Organization's Department of Reproductive Health and Research, told CNBC via e-mail that with regards to male contraceptives, "research funding is available from some interested donors, but is limited." Festin added that "if ongoing research studies were to prove efficacy and safety, and with high acceptability, these would be commercially viable. It may take some time before these studies are completed."

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