Researchers at the University of Dundee have developed a fully automated robotic screening system which allows them to rapidly test the effect of drugs and other chemicals on human sperm.
The research team at Dundee, led by Professor Chris Barratt and Dr Paul Andrews, are working towards finding a safe and effective male contraceptive.
Their latest study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, reports the results of a systematic search for drugs that block sperm motility.
The Dundee team screened one of the world’s largest collections of previously approved and clinically tested drugs.
The outcome of the study shows that it is possible to find effective agents that halt the sperm in its tracks and further work will be done to investigate if any of these are suitable for long term use in the male.
Chris Barratt, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the university’s school of medicine, said: “This is a breakthrough in technology for the area. It allows us for the first time to assess in large numbers how compounds can affect sperm function.
“Surprisingly there has been no effective, reversible and widely available form of contraception developed for the male since the condom and, as such, the burden falls largely to the female.
“Finding an effective male contraceptive would be a major step in addressing that inequality.”
There is an urgent need to develop new methods for male contraception, however drug discovery efforts have been hampered for a variety of reasons, including the relatively poor understanding of human sperm biology.
Dr Paul Andrews, who leads the National Phenotypic Screening Centre (NPSC) in Dundee said: “The conventional way to test drugs for contraceptive activity is prohibitively time-consuming.
“Through the hard work of the multi-disciplinary research team in Dundee, we have managed to develop a disruptive technology platform we hope will be a game changer.”
Contraception is a critical area for research as, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there are 89 million unintended pregnancies and 48 million abortions every year, often pushing women into life choices that increase poverty and pose severe health risks.