Scientists have discovered a chemical from a plant extract traditionally used by African warriors to poison their arrows. According to a new study, this chemical could be the future of the male birth control pill.
Men may have a few options for contraceptive methods, but none of them works the same way as women’s birth control pills, in which it would limit the reproductive cell. But a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas discovered that the chemical called ouabain could be a potential ingredient for a male contraceptive pill. The findings of the study can be found in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.
The toxic substance ouabain is extracted from two kinds of plants native to Africa, the Strophanthus gratus or the climbing oleander, and the Acokanthera schimperi or commonly called the arrow poison tree. The chemical works by damaging the heart tissues, which consequently leads to death. African warriors would boil the plant to extract the toxic substance. They will then dip their arrows into the concentrated liquid to make the kill during the hunt.
Although ouabain is a deadly chemical, it has proven to be an effective cardiac glycoside, or a substance that increases the pumping force of the heart while lowering the rate of contractions. Scientists in Europe discovered this action in the 18th century and for that, ouabain has been used to treat heart conditions like arrhythmia and hypotension but using very low doses.
In 2014, a study has shown ouabain’s potential to affect male fertility, but because of its risk to the heart, it was never considered an excellent ingredient for male birth control pills. However, with continued research, scientists came up with a new version of ouabain — one with a tweaked molecular structure. This new analog targets a specific protein that controls a sperm motility, or the male reproductive cell’s ability to move through the female reproductive tract. In other words, this tweaked substance makes the sperm cells unable to swim, and therefore, cannot reach the egg and proceed with fertilization.
To demonstrate ouabain’s potential in becoming a key ingredient in male birth control pills, the research team tested the substance on male rats. The experiment found that the rats’ fertility was affected but they remained healthy. Not only that, scientists found that the effect was reversible, which means that the substance does not permanently affect the rats’ sperm motility. New sperm cells were not affected by the action of the new analog.
Although the findings are promising, scientists agree that more tests should be done in animals. If future experiments yield positive results, the ouabain analog could then be tested on humans.