Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin was one of the most important—and fortunate—mistakes of the 20th century. Nearly 100 years later, James Bradner thinks he and his colleagues may have stumbled on something that could be similarly world-changing: A molecule that could lead to the world's first effective male birth control pill, which could be ready for human testing within a year.
Bradner, of Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says he was working on creating an inhibitor molecule that could make cancer cells "forget" they were cancer, leading to potential new treatments for lung and blood cancers. But in doing so, he realized the molecule, named JQ1, can also inhibit a protein in the testes that is imperative to fertility.
JQ1 is known as a "small molecule," meaning it can effectively pass through the blood stream and into the testes. Once there, it binds to BRDT, a protein integral in sperm production. "These cells effectively forget how to make mature sperm," he says. "The result is a profound decrease in sperm count and impared motility, leading to a complete contraceptive effect. It's really stunning." According to Bradner, the molecule can be delivered via a pill, injectable, or topical solution.
In live mouse studies, the molecule effectively made them infertile and after a couple weeks off the molecule, fertility returned. The only side effect measured might not be such a bad one, Bradner jokes. "The only significant side effect we've seen has been mild weight loss," he says. "For sure, some people would not be too upset with this."