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Like so many news stories before it, Newsweek article makes male birth control pill sound imminent

Rating

3 Star

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DMAU: MALE BIRTH CONTROL PILL OFFERS 'UNPRECEDENTED' STUDY RESULTS

Our Review Summary

The story focuses on the results of a month-long trial of an experimental “male birth control pill.” The story does a fair job of describing the study, and discusses potential harms. However, the story does not place the new research findings into context regarding the broader field of research into developing a male birth control pill. Perhaps most importantly, however, the story does not give readers much information about how effective the pill may be at actually preventing pregnancy.

 

Why This Matters

Birth control pills for women have been a widely-used and valuable family planning tool for decades, but they have limitations: They place the responsibility for avoiding pregnancy solely on the woman, and not all women are able to take birth control pills without experiencing unwanted side effects. The development of a “male pill” would allow men to share responsibility for family-planning purposes and would allow couples to take advantage of “the pill” even if the woman is not comfortable taking a pill herself.

In short, a male pill could have significant ramifications in regard to quality of life for many people. However, the idea of a male pill has also been around for decades, with claims of breakthroughs in the field dating back almost 40 years. Nonetheless, a safe, effective male birth control pill has yet to make it to the marketplace. This story does a good job of describing the latest study in a long line of related research — but fails to place it in the context of that long line of research. That context is valuable for understanding what makes this latest research novel. In addition, it’s not clear when (if ever) this technology may be available to consumers.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Cost is not discussed. We understand that the pill is not close to coming to market, but there should be some discussion of costs — even if it is only to mention the costs of birth control pills for women and the fact that the costs of the male pill are not yet clear.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not quantify benefits in any meaningful way. Preliminary clinical trials, like this one, are primarily aimed at determining whether a given medical treatment is safe. That said, if a story is focused on the development of a male birth control pill, presumably the story needs to address the extent to which the pill may actually work. The story notes that “the once-daily prototype pill suppressed certain hormones to the low levels you’d expect to see with effective longer-term contraceptives.” What does that mean? The story later mentions “testosterone and two [other] hormones needed for the production of sperm.” Which hormones are we talking about? How low would the levels have to be? How low were the levels found in the study? And to what extent do those lower hormone levels reduce or eliminate sperm count?

And most importantly, the story carried no caveat that the pregnancy rate is still unknown. If it actually works as a contraceptive remains to be seen.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story notes the range of side effects found among study participants, though some of the characterizations appear to lack context. For example, the story mentions that some subjects experienced “mild weight gain.” Based on information in the study abstract, the mean weight gain was 1.5 to 3.9 kilograms. Given that 3.9 kilograms is 8.5 pounds, that’s not inconsiderable. i.e., many men may balk at the idea of gaining more than eight pounds in a month. It’s also not clear what sort of weight we’re talking about. Muscle? Fat? Water retention? This may be particularly relevant (and worth articulating clearly) for a medical intervention aimed specifically at sexually active adults.

By the same token, the story notes that “a minority of participants did experience decreased libido during the study.” According to the study abstract, eight of the study participants who received the drug experienced decreased libido. Given that only 83 people completed the study, and that some of those study participants received a placebo, that means that more than 10 percent of men who received the drug experienced decreased libido.

Again, this seems particularly relevant for a drug aimed solely at people who are planning to have sex. In short, the story did not overlook any of the potential harms discussed in the abstract, but could have done a better job of placing those potential harms in relevant context. How appealing is a birth control pill for men if it makes more than 10 percent of them less interested in sex in the first place?

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The story accurately describes the study as being a month-long trial, with a control, involving 83 patients. It could have done more to explain why a lot more testing is needed, though.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not cite any independent sources, nor does it note that two of the study co-authors have ties to pharmaceutical companies — including a company that focuses on an oral testosterone replacement therapy.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story does refer to other medical treatments aimed at male birth control that are under development, namely “a long-lasting injection or topical gel.” So we’ll give it credit here. We wish it had offered slightly more information here (e.g., are both of those technologies also hormone-based?).

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story does state that “Longer-term studies are the next step toward a once-daily male contraceptive pill.” However, most people are not familiar with how clinical trials work. A little additional information here would have gone a long way. Realistically, these “longer-term studies” will take years — and that’s if everything goes perfectly. Readers expecting to see a male birth control pill in the relatively near future will certainly be disappointed.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

A 1980 journal article trumpeted “China Invents Male Birth Control Pill.” 2003 saw the publication of a book titled “The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making.” As recently as 2016, news releases have talked about research such as “male birth control shots” that “prevent pregnancy” (we reviewed that one). In short, research into pharmaceutical contraceptives for men has been an active field for decades — and premature announcements of breakthroughs date back at least 38 years. This story quotes a researcher involved in the recent study as saying the findings are a “major step forward” and are “unprecedented in the development of a prototype male pill.” But it doesn’t tell us why. What makes this study, or this pill, different?

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

This gets a satisfactory rating, but barely. The bulk of the story appears to be drawn from a news release. However, the story also includes information not found in the release, but which can be found in the online study abstract.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory

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