CNN Food and Health

Birth control vaccine in the works

A dose or two a year would halt pregnancy, researchers hope

petri dish

January 14, 1996
Web posted at: 1:54 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Lori Waffenschmidt

(CNN) -- Family planning experts say what's needed to prevent unwanted pregnancies among women of all ages is a method of birth control that's foolproof and easy to use. Researchers think they may be on track towards developing just that: a birth control vaccine, something that could prove to be the most effective birth control method ever.

Prof. Roy Curtiss

Common bacteria, which sometimes causes food poisoning or typhoid fever, could be the key to the vaccine. Researchers are taming salmonella and genetically altering it into a protein factory of sorts. The goal is to produce proteins that will cause the body to have an immune reaction to sperm, thus blocking fertilization. In simple terms, scientists want to treat fertilization like a disease.

Roy Curtiss, a professor at Washington University, says the concept makes sense because the interaction between a sperm and an egg is sort of like the interaction between a virus and a cell. Curtiss hopes to use proteins unique to sperm and eggs to make vaccines that could be used by men or women.

mother with baby

He says an oral vaccine that would be taken only once or twice a year could have many advantages when it comes to birth control. "It's very, very inexpensive and safe," Curtiss said. "There's no need for refrigeration, which makes its use in the developing world attractive. And you don't need to remember to do something 21 days in a row."

works on mice

Experts say there's a huge need for such convenient birth control. Around the world, 230 million women of reproductive age, about one in six, still lack access to adequate family planning. Reports show that women's ability to have the number of children they want, when they want them, is central to the quality of their lives and the well-being of their families.

Experts say this new birth control vaccine is years away, but animal testing is under way and researchers are already getting results with mice. In some tests, immunized mice did not get pregnant at all, while in other tests litter size was greatly reduced. Researchers hope that in humans the contraceptive effects could last six months to one year.

Dr. Robert Hatcher of Emory University says that if women are going to gain control of their lives, safe and effective family planning is a critical issue. He says the status of women also must change (162K AIFF sound or 162K WAV sound). "Popes, presidents, politicians and physicians, usually men, have controlled the reproductive destinies (of women) for all too long and this must stop," Hatcher said.

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