After decades of research, development of a male birth control may now be one step closer. My colleagues and I are working on a promising lead for a male birth control pill based on ouabain – a plant extract that African warriors and hunters traditionally used as a heart-stopping poison on their arrows.

State of the search

While the birth control pill has been available to women in the United States for nearly six decades – and FDA-approved for contraceptive use since 1960 – an oral contraceptive for men has not yet come to market. The pill has provided women with safe, effective and reversible options for birth control, while options for men have been stuck in a rut.

Today, men have just 2 choices when it comes to birth control: condoms or a vasectomy. Together, these 2 methods account for just 30 percent of contraception used, leaving the remaining 70% of contraceptive methods to women. An estimated 500,000 American men opt for a vasectomy each year – a small number given the need for contraception. Vasectomy is an invasive procedure to do that’s also difficult and invasive to reverse.

When it comes to birth control options for men, the need is clear. Unplanned pregnancy rates remain high across the globe. It’s time for more options.

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Hormonal versus nonhormonal

Researchers are exploring both hormonal and nonhormonal options for male birth control pills. Current hormonal agents under study involve the sex steroids progestins and testosterone.

While the male hormonal birth control pill option is in clinical human trials and likely closer to market, it has several potential side effects: In addition to potentially causing weight gain and changes in libido, it has the ability to lower the levels of good cholesterol (HDL-C) in men, which could negatively affect the heart health of users. The long-term effects of using hormones for male oral contraception are unknown, and it will likely be decades before this information is available.