(CBS News) A male birth control pill might not be so far-fetched, now that Scottish scientists have uncovered a key gene essential for sperm development.
The gene - called Katnal1 - is critical for sperm production because it enables sperm to mature in the testes. Thus, if scientists can somehow regulate this gene with a pill, sperm production will be stalled.
"If we can find a way to target this gene in the testes, we could potentially develop a non-hormonal contraceptive," study author Dr. Lee Smith, a reader in genetic endocrinology at the Medical Research Council Center for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said in a news release.
Non-hormonal is important, the researchers say, because some conventional male contraceptives that rely on disrupting production of the male hormone testosterone can cause side effects such as mood swings, acne and irritability. The new treatment would also provide an alternative to popular male birth control methods like condoms and vasectomy.
Katnal1 is needed to regulate scaffold-like structures called tubules, the study showed, which forms part of the cells that provide nutrients to developing sperm. When scientists genetically modified mice to not carry this gene, the mice were infertile. The findings are published in the May 24 issue of PLoS Genetics.
Smith said the effects from a drug targeting this gene would be reversible since it stops the sperm at the maturation stage.
"The important thing is that the effects of such a drug would be reversible because Katnal1 only affects sperm cells in the later stages of development, so it would not hinder the early stages of sperm production and the overall ability to produce sperm," he said.
Dr. Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., told BBC News that a non-hormonal contraceptive for men has been the "Holy Grail" of research for years.
"The gene described by the research group in Edinburgh sounds like an exciting new possible target for a new male contraceptive, but it may also shed light on why some men are sub-fertile and why their sperm does not work properly," Pacey said.
This isn't the only ongoing attempt at finding an effective non-hormonal male birth control.reported in January that researchers at the University of North Carolina used high-frequency ultrasound to zap sperm counts in rats, suggesting it might be effective in humans.