Potential male birth control pill has strange origins

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In an effort to produce the first-ever male birth control pill, scientists have discovered that a plant extract once used by African warriors as a heart-stopping ingredient in their poisonous arrows could be the key.

The natural product is called ouabain and it's found in two plants native to Africa —the acokanthera schimperi, or "arrow poison tree," and the strophanthus gratus, more commonly known as climbing oleander. Ouabain is a toxic substance that can cause damage to the heart tissue and lead to death, but when used in much smaller doses, it's actually found in drugs prescribed by doctors to help control blood pressure and treat heart attack patients.

Researchers at the American Chemical Society noted that ouabain has been shown to curb fertility in men but its high toxicity levels make it unsuitable for this purpose — perhaps until now. The scientists created a new ouabain analog — a variation of the compound with a slightly different molecular structure — that is designed to hone in on a specific protein in sperm that controls its ability to swim. If sperm cells aren't able to swim, they can't reach and fertilize an egg.

The team tried out its new ouabain compound on rats and discovered that it made them infertile but also proved safe to the animals' overall health, the study published in ACS' Journal of Medicinal Chemistry said. The scientists also believe that the effects of the pill are completely reversible, like the widely used female birth control pill. New sperm cells were not affected once oubain left the rats' systems.

This potential male birth control pill has not been tested on humans but the new research is an encouraging step toward leveling the playing field of male and female contraceptive options.