Sunday, June 24, 2018
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At Large

A contraceptive for men

SURABAYA—The scientific name is “justicia gendarussa.” According to the medical information site Globinmed, in the Philippines it is known as “kapanitulot,” but although it looks familiar, I hadn’t heard of this plant before.

It is a common-looking shrub, with a dark red or brown stem and green, shiny, pointed leaves. In the labs of the state-run Airlangga University in this Indonesian city, the shrub is generating excitement and has dozens of pharmacy students testing its contraceptive qualities.

You read right—a contraceptive. Now about to embark on Phase 3 of human clinical trials, the team at Airlangga University led by Prof. Bambang Prijogo began its research in 1987, after hearing from researchers at the ethno-medicine department about a shrub in Papua with contraceptive qualities. And here’s the catch: It works as a contraceptive among men.

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You read right again. Gendarussa is being looked at as a possible temporary contraceptive for men. Dr. Bambang said it works primarily by “disturbing the enzyme system of spermatozoa,” affecting its “function, capacity, migration, binding and inhibition.” A slide shows the sperm inhibited by what looks like a cloud of chemicals. Talking about the plant the evening before, Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs of the Population Reference Bureau, which brought our team of journalists here, describes the sperm after being hit by a cloud of chemicals from gendarussa as “Woody Allen sperm.” (In reference to the role played by Allen in the 1980-era movie “All You Wanted to Know about Sex without Really Trying.”) Apparently, the gendarussa works by weakening the ability of the sperm to penetrate an ovum during intercourse. And researchers assert that even as the sperm is “weakened,” it has no effect whatsoever on erection. In fact, some test subjects have even reported “increased libido and better stamina.”

* * *

Which brings us to one of the test subjects, introduced to us as “Mr. Pantra.” A postal employee, Pantra, 38, already has three daughters, and his wife agreed to take part in the experiment because, she told a documentary maker, “he should try taking responsibility for it now.”

A friend who was involved in Phase 1 of the trials convinced him to sign up as a volunteer, assuring him that “nothing bad” would happen. Dr. Dyan Pramento, an associate of Dr. Bambang, says volunteers are asked to start taking the gendarussa capsules at least 20 days before their partner’s fertile period and are asked to have sex with their partners “three times during the woman’s fertile week.” Subjects and their wives are also asked to undergo “post-coital tests,” with a doctor taking swabs of the wife’s cervical mucus to test for the presence and quality of the sperm present there.

“My wife fully supports my involvement,” asserted Pantra. Aside from taking part in a groundbreaking experiment on male contraception, the men in the study (350 for Phase 3) are also given an allowance for the five months they are taking part in the study, as well as health insurance. There is also a provision in the contract, said Dr. Pramento, that if the woman gets pregnant, they would “accept the pregnancy.” In Phase 1 of the trials, not one of the subjects got pregnant, Dr. Pramento said. But in Phase 2, there was one pregnancy.

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The women in the room were skeptical. Would we trust the men in our lives to take responsibility for protecting us from pregnancy?

In Africa, said one young journalist, “men would even subvert a woman’s attempts at contraception.” Could men be trusted to religiously take a capsule and assure their partners that they need not fear getting pregnant?

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If it were me, I said, I would let my husband take his capsules, but take the pill without his knowledge, just in case he starts forgetting to take his gendarussa.

We asked a student, who was bringing around a tray with bottles and capsules of the gendarussa, if he would try the male contraceptive. “Oh, I would be afraid,” he said. Dr. Bambang himself said it was “too late” for him to try gendarussa, but he confidently said “yes” when I asked him if, once the contraceptive was licensed, he would let his three adolescent sons take it. “Once they are married, why not?” said the researcher. What about making the male contraceptive available to single, young people? “That would be an abuse of our research!” he exclaimed.

* * *

The research work on gendarussa is funded by the BkkbN, Indonesia’s family planning body. Already, it is paying for the small-scale manufacture of gendarussa capsules being used in the Phase 3 trials, carried out by an herbal medicine firm called Naturoz.

We took a bus trip of almost two hours to the lab and factory managed by three brothers conscripted into the family firm. According to Emmanuel, the eldest of the three, they manufacture the capsules “only for research purposes,” and Indo-Pharma, a large government firm, will probably make the gendarussa once the drug passes all tests and gains Indonesian FDA approval.

It also happens that among the products of Sido Jodo (the firm’s label) is a concoction of ginseng and other roots that is supposed to “boost energy” among users. A naughty thought entered my mind: What about a marketing strategy that promotes the ginseng drink for sexual energy, then suggests the gendarussa capsules for protection during sex?

While the male contraceptive remains the holy grail of contraceptive research, male behavior remains the biggest mystery of all. Researchers in the Philippines say men would happily cooperate with their partners’ family planning goals if more products aimed at them are available. Let’s see if future sales of gendarussa prove this to be true.

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TAGS: contraceptive, family planning, featured column, justicia gendarussa
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