Scientists have long made promises about the coming of multiple male birth control methods in the near future that would change society by taking some of the heavy burden of family planning away from women. But almost all of them have proven to be pipe dreams – always “a few years away” from being clinically proven and put into production.
One of those much-hyped male birth control methods was a pill from Indonesia that a researcher from Surabaya’s Airlangga University has dedicated decades of his career to developing. The pill, derived from a plant first used by Papuan tribesmen to prevent pregnancy, promises to make men infertile for as long as they take it (while returning them to normal virility within three days after they stop taking it) without any side effects.
Way back in 2014 (wow, has it really been that long?), we breathlessly wrote that “Indonesia is about to start producing a male birth control pill that will change the world” and that it was promised to come out as soon as 2015.
Obviously… that didn’t happen. But the science behind it, and studies into the pill’s powers, seem legit. And so we have patiently waited and searched for any updates about the pill actually becoming a reality.
That update finally came earlier this month, when Airlangga University announced that testing on the pills had finally been totally completed and they have signed a deal with pharmaceutical company PT Harsen Laboratories to begin mass production in the near future.
“It is one of the hundreds products discovered by UNAIR researchers that is now ready to be manufactured and commercialized. The dream of birth control pills for men is coming true,” said UNAIR’s rector, Prof. Dr. M. Nasih, as quoted in the announcement on the university’s website, which was released on March 8.
According to the announcement, the pills will be ready for the market in one and a half years. One of the last regulatory requirements they say they must meet before that can happen is getting the distribution permit from Indonesia’s Drug and Food Monitoring Agency (BPOM).
“The pill will be marketed to Indonesia and the world. It is the first of its kind, no one has ever developed this before. UNAIR and Indonesia have every reason to be proud of this achievement,” said Haryoseno, the president director of Harsen Laboratories.
The male birth control pills were developed by Airlangga’s Dr. Bambang Prajogo, a professor of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, who has been doing research on them for over thirty years.
The pill is derived from Justicia gendarussa, a plant which is pervasive in India but also in Indonesia’s Papua province, where it has been long been used by male members of a small remote tribe to prevent pregnancy. They would boil the leaves in water and then drink the water 30 minutes before intercourse.
Apparently it was a godsend for the tribesmen – in their culture they were not allowed to get their wives pregnant until after they had fully paid off their dowries.
After learning about that practice, Dr. Bambang brought the plant to his lab in 1985. He and his colleagues have spent many years confirming its effect, isolating its active ingredient and synthesizing it chemically into capsule form.
Dr. Bambang says the plant’s active ingredient disrupts three key enzymes in sperm, making them unable to penetrate the eggs during the fertilization process.
“The chemical will not affect the quality or the quantity of sperm produced because it only targets the enzymes,” he told the Jakarta Post in 2014.
Phase three testing on the pill included 350 couples, with 186 taking the pill and the others taking a placebo. The success rate of the pill in those tests was 99.96 %, a rate comparable to female birth control pills. Testing also showed that male fertility rates returned to normal just three days after the subjects stopped taking the pills.
According to Airlangga’s recent announcement, clinical studies showed that the pills even improved the test subjects overall fitness and stamina. (Perhaps because they were doing so much more… exercise at night?)
As exciting as all of that sounds, we’re far from confident that the pills will actually become available within a year and a half as announced.
Back in 2013, long before their current deal with Harsen Laboratories, Airlangga announced that they had been working with Indonesia’s state-run pharmaceutical company, Indofarma, to begin work on mass-producing the drug, as well as securing the necessary production and distribution licenses. Indofarma later announced that it would be ready to begin production and export of the drug in 2014. Obviously, that didn’t happen either.
But perhaps this time will be the charm. And if this fabled male birth control ever does become a practical reality and works as they claim it does, it really could change the world and society in many profound ways we can’t even anticipate right now.
“This will create a new paradigm. If women used to be the only subject of birth control pills, now the men are taken into account as well. It will create a change so that men can actively take part in family planning,” said Airlangga Vice Rector Junaidi Khotib.
Indeed. And that may just be the beginning of it.