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Scientists find new contraceptive in anti-fertility ‘folk medicines’

Researchers have discovered that chemicals from wild plants could be used to make contraceptives.

The two chemicals are called Lupeol and Pristimerin. Lupeol is the more common of the two and appears in dandelion root, among other things. Pristimerin is less common, coming from a vine known as ‘thunder god vine’ (Tripterygium wilfordii).

According to Science Daily, Lupeol and Pristimerin were also found in anti-fertility folk medicines.

The University of California researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote that the two chemicals block a key step in fertilisation: the meeting of egg and sperm.

As well as stopping unwanted pregnancies, the chemicals seem to have no adverse effect on either the egg or sperm, and may be more acceptable to those who object to emergency contraceptives, such as the ‘morning-after pill’.

The chemicals stop the sperm’s ability to drill itself into an egg. In normal cases, once a sperm reaches an egg, it switches from a swimming-like technique to a corkscrew technique, pushing into the egg’s protective layer.

That moment of switching from swimmer to driller is accomplished by the sperm “whipping its tail” and a sudden influx of calcium ions.

“The massive influx of calcium into the sperm tail changes the sperm tail’s beating pattern, making it highly asymmetrical,” Nadja Mannowetz, an author of the study, told Science Daily. “This asymmetrical bending gives the sperm cell enough force to drill through the tenacious egg vestment.”

In tests conducted by the researchers, Lupeol and Pristimerin acted as “molecular condoms”, preventing sperm from performing the tail whip and penetrating an egg.

At present, the biggest challenge to the development of the contraceptive is the costs associated with extracting the necessary chemicals from plants. According to Gizmodo, trials on primates have already begun and results are expected by the end of the year. Following that, human trials would take an additional two to three years.

Earlier this month, we reported on Echo-V, a reversible male birth control procedure that is currently undergoing FDA approvals and is predicted to be available in four to five years.

With these new technologies on the horizon, it looks like we will soon be seeing a shift in how we approach the important issue of contraception.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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