UC Berkeley-based startup develops first hormone-free contraceptive for men

Birth control pills on a desk
Rachael Garner/File

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YourChoice Therapeutics, a startup developed by UC Berkeley researchers, is developing the first hormone-free birth control for both men and women to be released in 2025.

When co-founders Polina Lishko and Nadja Mannowetz began the project, they initially sought to develop a nonhormonal contraceptive for women that would eliminate the negative side effects of birth control.  As the project progressed, however, the researchers discovered their product could be used to inhibit the action of male sperm, and could be consumed by both men and women as birth control — a phenomenon dubbed the “molecular condom concept.”

The method would also eliminate the risks associated with currently studied male birth control products, including erectile dysfunction and reduced sex drive.

“Our finding is not just another published paper,” Mannowetz said in an interview with the Bakar Fellows Program. “What we are doing can help every woman of reproductive age out there.”

According to Akash Bakshi, co-founder and CEO of YourChoice Therapeutics, preexisting contraceptives are known to cause “horrible” side effects, which prompts some women to discontinue use of such products. Long-term use of hormonal contraceptives also increase a woman’s risk for cervical and breast cancers, as well as blood clots. YourChoice’s products — based on the team’s extensive research — would give women more control over their reproductive health systems, according to Bakshi.

“The vision of the company originally was to improve the lives and well-being of women,” Bakshi said.

The new product would work in two ways. The first method would target sperm’s ability to swim to the egg, reducing its energy production. In the rare case that some sperm still reach the egg, the drug would also prevent the sperm from drilling — disabling its normal action of fertilization.

The unisex contraceptives, which were founded after a decade of research, are both “highly effective” and “reversible,” according to the YourChoice website. YourChoice plans to release an initial product to be used intravaginally, and eventually oral contraceptives for both male and female consumers.  

Part of YourChoice’s mission is to reduce the number of children and families living at the poverty line through new reproductive technologies.

The contraceptives were developed in UC Berkeley’s Lishko Lab, which focuses on the mammalian fertilization and molecular physiology of human sperm cells. The lab’s research aims to diagnose male fertility and spearhead safer unisex contraceptives.

Male contraception has the potential to shift societal gender dynamics and allow for greater male reproductive control, according to a study published in American Journal of Men’s Health in 2017.

Campus student Anjali Banerjee said that women are used to having to “shoulder the burden and the fright” of potentially getting pregnant, however, adding that men might potentially feel uncomfortable with taking a pill.

“It could be internally disturbing for men,” Banerjee said. “Options are good. I really hated hormonal birth control.”

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.