Imagine a contraceptive that could provide months of protection from pregnancy. Imagine achieving that without pills, injections, creams or inserted devices, but with just one or two painless 15-minute non-surgical treatments. And imagine that the equipment needed was already in physical therapists’ offices around the world.
Sound too good to be true? Well that, it seems, all depends on your gender perspective. You see, the thing is, that this treatment would be exclusively aimed at men. And while it would give guys the first new option since condoms and vasectomies were introduced more than a century ago and give women a break from the burden of birth control, the treatment involves zapping the testicles with ultrasound!
As most of our adolescent and adult readers know a man’s testicles need to be kept slightly cooler than the rest of the body to properly produce sperm. Hence the countless jokes and warnings about Jacuzzis, laptops, and tight pants. Even though hot tubs and tight pants can reduce a man’s sperm count, such methods are not reliable enough for contraception.
Which led scientists to explore, what if this heat effect could be enhanced?
And that’s where ultrasound comes in. Relatively inexpensive and already in use in physical therapists’ offices around the world, therapeutic ultrasound uses deep heat to increase circulation to injured joints. Now it seems that ultrasound can be used on other body parts too.
According to research headed by Dr. James Tsuruta at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill scientists were able to achieve a contraceptive effect in rats that lasted more than 2 1/2 months with just two 15-minute sessions of ultrasound, two days apart.
During the sessions, the testes were placed in a cup of saline to provide conduction between the ultrasound transducer and skin.
The researchers were not able to continue their study for long enough to see when, or whether, fertility would return. But they knew it was effective: microscopic examination showed dramatic changes after just two weeks. Normally, testes are full of many layers of cells developing into sperm, but now the tubes of the testes were almost empty. “Sperm production is very robust; this ensures the survival of a species. It’s really difficult to find a way to turn off the production of sperm, but ultrasound seems to do the trick,” Dr. Tsuruta continues. “There is something special about heating with ultrasound – it caused 10 times lower sperm counts than just applying heat.”
“This is an interesting development in a challenging indication,” says regulatory consultant Gary Gamerman of Seraphim Life Sciences. “The only concern is proof of safety and durability of response. As long as it prevents fertile sperm, is overall safe and doesn’t cause secondary safety or adverse sexual effects, there wouldn’t necessarily be anything that would hold it back. You just have to do the studies.”
But some men aren’t waiting for the results of years of studies. They have a scientific background – they know enough scientific jargon to read the papers and understand exactly what the risks are – and are willing to take a chance.
In a long-term relationship and looking for an option other than condoms or vasectomy, Dr. Chris Jenks decided to give the heat methods a try. With a simple modification to his underwear, Dr. Jenks was able to keep his testes closer to his body, too warm to properly produce sperm. Sure enough, within a month his sperm count dropped below the fertility cutoff. The method worked well – so well that he continued using it for nearly 12 years.
But Dr. Jenks knew that being a pioneer, there might be surprises. In 2010 he discontinued the heating, wondering how his system was doing. By two months later the sperm numbers seemed to be climbing back up, and he thought he was regaining fertility as in the 2-year studies. But there was a catch: even a year later, most of the sperm were not swimming.
So, maybe ultrasound will provide the answers, maybe not. Either way, there is still much to be learned about the procedure. Don’t expect a scrotal boombox to hit stores any time soon, and as we’ve said before “Do not try this one at home!”