A group of UVA inventors has already won tens of thousands of dollars for an idea for pets that may have implications as a human male contraceptive.
Contraline, a highly praised innovation by judges at UVA’s Entrepreneurship Cup and the Darden Business Plan competition, is an alternative to the traditional surgical sterilization used to neuter pets. It’s a non-hormonal gel contraceptive, which can be injected into the vas deferens, or the duct that carries sperm from the testicles to the urethra, and monitored by ultrasound. The gel can also be removed should Sparky’s owners change their minds.
Though it’s still being tested in the lab, the group has developed an in vitro model to form the gel and run sperm through it. They are studying the clogging and spermicidal effects of the gel on the sperm, which the gel would block.
Local veterinarian Mike Fietz isn’t so sure about the neutering alternative. He says the students stopped by his practice at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital to pick his brain.
“I felt like I was raining on their parade,” he says. “Veterinarians are always happy to see new tools in their toolboxes, and I appreciate their enthusiasm in trying to create one. This idea—clearly inspired by similar techniques in people—comes from a good place, but it just isn’t a viable alternative to neutering.”
Pet overpopulation is a universal problem and Charlottesville is no exception, he says, but sterilization is not only used to control population. According to Fietz, neutered pets are also less likely to roam, fight, mark a home with urine or demonstrate sexual behaviors such as mounting and dominance. He says the procedure could be impractical because it requires sensitive ultrasound equipment and the skill and training to use it, along with “an implausibly cooperative patient.”
Also, animals will still have testicles afterward and “apologies to men everywhere,” he says, but “all the problems that go with them.”
Fietz adds that neutering pets protects them from medical problems like prostate enlargement and testicular cancer.
In his UVA group’s research, founder Kevin Eisenfrats says he learned that neutered pets are three times more likely to develop cancers like bladder and prostate. When using Contraline, he says pets will be sedated before the procedure, and the gel can be seen under any ultrasound, not just extremely sensitive ones.
“I’m not advocating against neutering,” Eisenfrats says. “All I’m saying is that there is room for a non-hormonal alternative on the market.” Any medicine or procedure that changes hormones affects every cell in the body, so there will be adverse side effects, which are still being researched. An increased risk of cancers, bone disorders and obesity are associated with neutering, he says.
In three to five years, Eisenfrats says they hope to have developed a product that works for pets and they’ll be able to release it to the veterinary community to start earning revenue while working on their next big feat.
“There’s a bigger need and that’s for men,” he says, adding that birth control pills hit the market 60 years ago and other female contraceptives are invented regularly, but there hasn’t been much contraceptive development for men.
“Ninety percent of men think that they should play a bigger role in family planning,” he says, “but, at the same time, it’s not being reflected by the products that are out there.” The only two options men currently have are condoms and vasectomies.
Ryan Smith, the project’s clinical adviser and a urologist at UVA Medical Center, says alternatives to a vasectomy carry widespread appeal and a couple are under development. RISUG, or reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance, was developed in India and still requires a small amount of surgery. Vasalgel, another gel product under development in the U.S., is not visible with ultrasound and also requires surgery to make the vas deferens accessible. Contraline, however, could be delivered through the skin without making an incision, he says.
Smith says Contraline could be the first to “make the procedure non-surgical, the gel imageable and the gel’s effects reversible.” They’ve even got a new name for their non-surgical procedure: vasintomy.
“It’s different than a vasectomy because we aren’t exteriorizing the vas deferens,” Eisenfrats explains, “and rather than cutting the tube, we’re putting a gel inside.”
Whether a vasintomy would be safer for humans than a vasectomy requires further investigation, Smith says, adding that the hormonal manipulation that results from neutering a pet surgically is concerning.