Health Care

Poisonous plant extract shows early promise for male contraceptive pills

Poisonous plant extract shows early promise for male contraceptive pills”

Scientists have discovered that a plant extract once used by African warriors in their poisonous arrows could be the key in developing a male birth control pill.


Finding a simple male contraceptive compound that is safe, effective and reversible has been relatively elusive for scientists, but a new study has revealed that the secret to a male birth control pill may lie in a plant extract that has ancient African origins.

The natural product is called ouabain and it's found in two plants native to Africa - the acokanthera schimperi, or "arrow poison tree", and the strophanthus gratus, more commonly known as climbing oleander.

Be it a gel or a pill, it seems a viable male contraceptive drug is still some years away and questions do remain over whether men are even willing to embrace a form of birth control similar to women.

Scientists believe the hormone can help maintain blood pressure levels and physicians sometimes prescribe it to treat patients who have suffered from a heart attack.

Researchers at the American Chemical Society discovered that when ouabain is used in smaller doses it disrupts the passage of sodium and calcium ions through a membrane protein called Na, K-ATPases, and by binding with this protein blocks the sperm cell's ability to swim, thus making it hard to fertilize the egg. Some argue it's because the biological foundations of male fertility are harder to simply block, while others suggest the success of female contraception led to a lack of interest in pharmaceutical development. Ouabain binds strongly to α4, but it also binds to other Na, K-ATPase subunits, albeit less tightly.

The potential threat of heart damage drove the research team to design mild ouabain doses that would pose a reduced threat to the heart and then focused primarily on binding it to a particular protein found in sperm. The compound had no toxicity in rats.

The contraceptive effect should be reversible because alpha4 is only found in mature sperm cells. That means sperm cells produced after stopping treatment with the ouabain derivative shouldn't be affected.

American Chemical Society, ACS is a congressionally chartered independent membership organization which represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry.

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