- Hollis Johnson
- A new startup called YourChoice Therapeutics aims to bring the first hormone-free male and female birth control drug to market.
- The company debuted at a recent demo day hosted by Silicon Valley tech hub Y Combinator.
- Stacked with researchers from UC Berkeley, the startup has published several basic studies in top-notch science journals.
- Still, the field of male birth control is a tough nut to crack, and the company faces challenges.
When University of California at Berkeley scientists Polina Lishko and Nadja Mannowetz first dreamt up the idea for a new kind of birth control, they didn’t intend to create an option for men. Instead, they aimed to design a women’s contraceptive free from the laundry list of negative side effects tied to today’s Pill.
But a few years and several published papers later, and they realized the drug they were creating could be taken by both women and men. At a demo day hosted by Silicon Valley tech hub Y Combinator last month, they debuted as a startup called YourChoice Therapeutics.
Although their science is still early, YourChoice’s team has created the foundation for a hormone-free method that would prevent pregnancy by robbing a man’s sperm of the energy it would need to fertilize a woman’s egg. Outside experts call the approach “promising.”
The drug would work as a kind of one-two punch, Akash Bakshi, the CEO of YourChoice, told Business Insider.
First, it would prevent hundreds of millions of sperm from swimming to an egg by essentially disabling their main power source – their tails. As an added back-up in case a few crafty sperm find their way to an egg anyway, YourChoice’s drug would also disable the drilling action they need to fertilize the egg.
- Hollis Johnson
“The idea is that men and women can take this so a man’s sperm will a) not have the energy to get to the egg, and b) if they do get to the egg, they won’t be able to drill,” Bakshi said.
Because it doesn’t contain hormones, the drug would also be free from the side effects linked to current hormone-based women’s contraceptives. Those side effects include migraine headaches, weight gain, mood swings, and more. And while no male birth control has yet been brought to market, some of the drugs being studied could come with side effects like erectile dysfunction (ED) and reduced sex drive.
Your Choice hopes to avoid those side effects by steering clear of hormones and crippling sperm activity instead.
“Scientifically their approach is really well-positioned. It’s a good target,” Logan Nickels, the director of operations for a nonprofit research organization called the Male Contraceptive Initiative, told Business Insider.
‘Male options stand to be a game-changer’ for the contraceptive field
- Courtesy of Your Choice Therapeutics
Despite a host of recent innovations from companies like YourChoice and others, the contraception landscape has remained relatively unchanged for nearly half a century. Funding is a major obstacle. Politics plays a role too.
“The contraceptive space has limited funding as it is, and it’s been very focused on women for years,” Heather Vahdat, the executive director of the Male Contraceptive Initiative, told Business Insider.
“I think the momentum’s just picked up on male methods in general,” she added.
Mannowetz and her team agree.
“The contraceptive burden has been on women for forever,” Mannowetz said. “We’re still using the same products our grandmothers used.”
But in recent years, a handful of new initiatives have emerged with aims to broaden the landscape and give new options to both men and women.
“These male options stand to be a game-changer,” Vahdat said. “It feels like we’ve finally turned a corner.”
Two recent drugs under investigation include a hormone-based male birth control gel that scientists began testing in the US last December. The drug is rubbed daily on the shoulders and would work by reducing sperm count. A pill that works in a similar manner is also being studied. However, both hormonal drugs have been tied with side effects including ED and reduced sex drive. For these reasons and others, Vahdat and Nickels believe a male birth control option is at least 10 years away.
Other researchers are exploring non-hormonal formulations to try and avoid those side effects. Most of them work by disrupting the interaction between the sperm and the egg.
For its part, YourChoice’s non-hormonal approach uses small molecules inspired by a drug called lupeol and has published several peer-reviewed studies in journals like Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlining their basic approach. The company has raised an undisclosed amount that includes seed funding from Y Combinator. In the next few years, it hopes to progress from pre-clinical studies to studies in preparation for clinical trials.
The goal is to have a product on the market within the next eight to 10 years.
“That’s one good thing about being an underdog – your leaps are going to be fundamentally game-changing,” Vahdat said.