2018 Magazine - Gold

From her opening sentence “The trouble began, as it so often does, with a bottle of Chivas Regal” – Emily Anthes takes her readers on a tour of the long and often frustrating effort to develop a male contraceptive pill. In the 1950s, Sterling Drug synthesized a class of drugs that made male rats temporarily infertile. When tested on inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, the initial results were startling. Within 12 weeks, sperm counts plummeted. But then one of the test subjects drank some contraband Scotch and became violently ill. The drug and booze didn’t mix, and the research was quietly abandoned. Since then the joke in the field, according to one researcher, is that “the male contraceptive has been five years away for the last 40 years.” Anthes describes the state of the research effort, including some of the funding and regulatory hurdles that any proposed male contraceptive likely would face. Men, with long reproductive lifespans, would probably use such drugs for decades longer than women typically take the pill, Anthes notes. “Unless researchers manage to find a contraceptive with real health benefits for men,” she writes, “regulators will probably have a lower tolerance for side effects.” Anthes also looks at alternatives to pills, such as an injectable hydrogel that can solidify and block passage of sperm to the urethra or implantable valves that could block sperm flow at the flip of a switch. Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for The Wall Street Journal, praised Anthes for a fine style of explanatory writing with “a good sense of background and the agonizing process of drug development.” Anthes said her story “came from a desire to put a hot, headline-grabbing topic into broader context –  and to shed light on how hard it can be, in practice, to make these kinds of medical breakthroughs.”