Side effects from hormonal contraceptives are common. That’s why YourChoice Therapeutics, a start-up launched by researchers at UC Berkeley, is developing a hormone-free contraceptive that can be used by both men and women.
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The hormonal contraceptives currently taken by women often come with unwanted and unpleasant side effects, including weight gain, nausea, changes in mood, and decreased libido.
Hormonal contraceptives have been linked to breast cancer
There has also been a great deal of research into the effects of long-term contraceptive use and whether it increases women’s risk of developing certain types of cancer. Results on this important issue are varied and widely debated.
For instance, one study that included 46,022 women who were observed for up to 44 years after participating in the UK Royal College of General Practitioners’ Oral Contraception Study in 1968 and 1969 found that “Most women who choose to use oral contraceptives do not expose themselves to long-term cancer harms”.
However, another study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that over 10 years, 11,517 women out of 1.8 million women using hormonal contraception were diagnosed with breast cancer.
The authors concluded, “After discontinuation of hormonal contraception, the risk of breast cancer was still higher among the women who had used hormonal contraceptives for 5 years or more than among women who had not used hormonal contraceptives.”
They went on to say,“The overall absolute increase in breast cancers [in] current and recent users of any hormonal contraceptive was 13 […] per 100,000 person-years or approximately 1 extra breast cancer for every 7690 women using hormonal contraception for 1 year.”
The possible increase in the risk of cancer, along with the range of side effects caused by hormonal contraceptives results in many women abandoning the use of contraceptive medications altogether.
There has been ‘little innovation’ in male contraceptives
Despite the various options available to women, male contraceptive options are limited, and contraceptives as a whole have had “little innovation” according to the YourChoice Therapeutics website.
Currently, male contraceptives include condoms or vasectomies, but male condoms are only around 84 percent effective, and the female hormonal contraceptive pill is 92 to 97 percent effective, according to the American Sexual Health Association. Other forms of female contraception include birth control implants and IUDs, which are approximately 99 percent effective.
Male contraceptives are also known for causing unwanted side effects, from reduced libido to erectile dysfunction.
Akash Bakshi, company co-founder and CEO of YourChoice Therapeutics said: “The vision of the company originally was to improve the lives and well-being of women.”
Co-founders of the Polina Lishko and Nadja Mannowetz originally set out to develop a new, non-hormonal contraceptive for women that would relieve the unwanted side effects, only to realize their product could also be used to inhibit the action of sperm.
“Our finding is not just another published paper,” Mannowetz said. “What we are doing can help every woman of reproductive age out there.”
‘Molecular Condom’ is on the horizon
The company states that the new contraceptive is “based on the “molecular condom” concept”. This concept describes contraception that inhibits sperms’ ability to swim by lowering its energy production.
Its ability to fertilize the egg is also impaired; this means that if the sperm is able to reach the egg at all, it will not be able to actually fertilize the egg.
In more detail, the company states that they have “identified and developed the plant compound lupeol to prevent a motility pattern of human sperm cells needed to reach and fertilize an egg.”
They also state that lupeol is not cytotoxic, and is effective in small concentrations.
According to Y Combinator, an American seed accelerator that funds early-stage start-up companies and provided funding for this project, has said that this novel approach will not interfere with a cell’s ability to function or its gene expression, meaning no side effects will occur.
The YourChoice Therapeutics website claims that the new contraceptives, which were developed in UC Berkeley’s Lishko Lab and are the product of 10 years of research, are “highly-effective” and “reversible”.
Providing men with more reproductive control will ‘democratize contraception’
As well as “democratizing contraception”, YourChoice Therapeutics also aim to “improve the lives of women, men and their families by developing birth control options that are hormone-free, safe, easy to use and effective,” which may also result in fewer families living at the poverty line through better family planning.
Additionally, not only will the unisex contraceptives alter the amount of responsibility left on women to ensure contraceptive use is safe and effective, but men will also enjoy a greater degree of reproductive control, as discussed in the American Journal of Men’s Health in 2017.
The first product from YourChoice Therapeutics will be an intravaginal contraceptive that is applied before intercourse. They also plan to develop non-hormonal oral contraceptive pills for both men and women.