If there's two things in this world that have almost universal appeal, it's gold and lasers. However, in the search for an effective, reversible method of male birth control, scientists have put these two things together in a way that might be completely awesome, or it might be utterly terrifying.
This may sound a bit too much like something from an Austin Powers movie, but scientists in China are now experimenting with a method of reversible male birth control that involves injecting gold into a man's testicles. It doesn't stop there, though. Once the gold — in the form of tiny nanoscale rods — is injected, an infrared laser is used to heat up that gold to a temperature that kills off sperm cells.
Their research using mice showed that, after a treatment heating the nanotubes to a low temperature, just enough to kill off the sperm, the sperm count dropped to roughly 10 per cent of their original numbers after a week, and then recovered to about 50 per cent after about two months. For reference, normal male sperm counts are between 20 and 40 million sperm per millilitre of semen, and anything below 15 million is considered 'low sperm count' and 'male infertility'.
Some of the latest statistics on birth control and pregnancy say that the chance of getting pregnant in the first year of having sex with no method of birth control is around 85%, and the chance drops to about 18% when the man uses a condom. There's no numbers on exactly how sperm count affects pregnancy rate (except, apparently, in the case of artificial insemination), but reducing a man's sperm count to nearly one tenth of the minimum that's considered as 'infertility' has to reduce the chances by quite a bit.
Anyone getting this treatment would need to go back periodically to have it repeated, of course, but its completely reversible, so if you wanted to have a child you could just stop treatments. Also, according to the research, if you ever made the decision that you didn't want any more kids, or you didn't want any at all, you could just have the doctors turn up the heat a bit more on the infrared laser and the effect would be permanent.
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There's other methods of reversible male birth control being developed, of course, so this isn't the only player in the game. Scientists have been working on the male birth control pill for some time, but it looks like they've given up on any 'hormonal' solutions. These days it's the high-tech ones that are getting the most attention, and most have to do with blocking up the vas — the tubes the sperm travel through on their way out of the testes. One that's just as bizarre as this gold nanotube one is RISUG (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance), which involves injecting a positively-charged polymer to coat the interior surface of the vas, which interacts with the negatively-charged sperm cells to damage or destroy them as they pass by.
It may not be for everyone, but you have to admit that's some pretty cool science.
(Picture courtesy: Getty Images)
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