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A startup hopes to use a 1970s discovery to bring a male contraceptive to market

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The first oral contraceptive for women was approved more than 50 years ago. But options for men are limited, and many firms are racing to bring a male contraceptive to market. From member station KNAU, Melissa Sevigny brings us this report on a startup in Flagstaff, Ariz.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: Entrepreneur L.R. Fox grew up in the foster care system. He experienced firsthand what he calls the devastating impact of unplanned pregnancies, so he opted for a vasectomy. It wasn't the ideal solution. Vasectomies aren't always reversible, and now he's unsure if he'll ever have a child.

L R FOX: The human right to choose when and if to have a child is so fundamental and yet is lacking in every single country, even the most industrialized countries in the world.

SEVIGNY: Fox founded a company, NEXT Life Sciences, and dove into the world of male birth control.

FOX: When people talk about male contraception, they often say, let's shift the burden to men. I think that's so ridiculous. It's not about shifting the burden. It's alleviating the burden.

SEVIGNY: And many women say birth control is a burden - between the side effects and the cost. Enter Plan A, developed in India in the 1970s and bought by NEXT Life in 2022. Chief science officer Rob Kellar holds up a sample in a glass vial.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CLINKING)

ROB KELLAR: The hydrogel in its liquid form looks a lot like fluid honey - pretty fluid honey.

SEVIGNY: This material is injected into the vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm, where it interacts with the chemistry of the human body and solidifies.

KELLAR: Kind of like the bottom of the Jell-O pan. But it has a porosity. It has a microarchitecture that has holes in it. So it'll allow fluid to flow through, but it won't allow larger particles, like sperm cells, to pass.

SEVIGNY: It's called a LARC - long-acting reversible contraception - because it's expected to last 10 years, and a second injection can dissolve the material and flush it out. Kellar gives a tour of the laboratories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGNETIC STIRRER SPINNING)

KELLAR: Over here on this stir plate, we're mixing the hydrogel - is what we're doing.

SEVIGNY: Small batches to test its effectiveness. One machine, heated to the temperature of the human body, forces real donated sperm through a pressurized tube while another repeatedly squeezes the Plan A filter.

KELLAR: So we can test it beyond what it might see in a patient to make sure that we have this sort of safety factor to ensure that it has longevity. So we do that on the benchtop before it goes into people.

SEVIGNY: NEXT Life plans to go to human trials within the year - the final step before seeking federal approval. A few other proposed male contraceptives have moved to this stage, and the nonprofit Male Contraceptive Initiative is funding dozens more. The initiative's chief research officer, Logan Nickels, expects, in a decade or two, multiple options will be on the market. But he says it's been a long time coming, partly due to cultural challenges.

LOGAN NICKELS: Men have taken a back seat in reproduction, and that's been partly to their own benefit. You know, they've been able to not have to worry about contraception. They've been able to say, oh, my partner deals with that.

SEVIGNY: He says that's changing, especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, which led to a sharp rise in vasectomies in men under 30. The Male Contraceptive Initiative estimates 17 million men are in the market for birth control in the U.S. alone.

NICKELS: Just thinking about the nuts and bolts of existing contraceptives and what they currently do, it became kind of like a, oh, my gosh. This is - this could change the world.

SEVIGNY: Nickels envisions a more equitable world with more choices and more conversations about the realities of sex and pregnancy. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.