As well as new treatments for infertility.
Scientists have long been trying to figure out how to develop an effective male birth control, and now researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have made a breakthrough discovery about male sperm that could lead to new contraceptive methods.
The scientists discovered the cellular switch that boosts the activity of sperm cells and enables them to travel to the female’s egg, and they say this finding could lead to new options for male contraception as well as treatments for infertility that come from problems with sperm mobility.
The sperm inside the male reproductive tract are capable of limited movement, but this movement isn’t enough to propel the sperm toward the egg — the sperm must first be activated by a hormone that’s released by the egg called progesterone.
The researchers found that the molecule that progesterone must bind to — the enzyme alpha/beta hydrolase domain containing protein 2 (ABHD2) — is found in the sperm cell’s outer membrane.
“This is an important advance in explaining how sperm become hypermotile in the female reproductive tract,” Stuart Moss, the director of the male reproductive health program at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a press release.
“Developing new compounds that block ABHD2 ultimately may yield new contraceptive methods to prevent sperm from reaching the egg.”
Further, the researchers believe that implementing strategies to enhance the enzyme could lead to treatments for infertility that results from sperm immobility.
Before this study, it wasn’t known whether progesterone interacted directly with a sperm protein called CatSper. To figure it out, the researchers exposed the sperm to a chemical that inhibits a particular class of enzymes believed to include the candidate molecule that acted on CatSper.
They did this before exposing the sperm to progesterone, and the results showed that their hunch was right — the treated cells remained inactive after being exposed to progesterone, which indicates that CatSper isn’t directly involved.
Finally, the researchers eventually isolated ABHD2 from the sperm tails and inactivated the ABHD2. They saw that exposure to progesterone failed to activate the sperm cells, which confirms that ABHD2 is the molecular target for progesterone.
All of the technical terminology aside, this means that the researchers have pinned down the cellular switch that boosts the sperm along to the egg, so by blocking the ABHD2 activity, new male birth control methods could be on the way.
Conversely, enhancing the enzyme could lead to new treatments for male infertility.
It will be interesting to see how this discovery impacts future research concerning male birth control and infertility treatments. Perhaps it’s the missing piece of information that will quickly yield an effective new male contraception option.
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