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A Dad on Testing's Front Lines

April 23, 2001|JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Al Lakin says he was thinking of his two teenage sons when he volunteered to take part in two clinical studies of male hormonal contraceptives.

"I look at the options I had at their age," said Lakin, 48. "It was to keep my pants zipped."

Lakin, a computer software consultant from Tarzana, believes men should assume more responsibility for the consequences of sex. And that by doing so, they provide their partners with more options for preventing pregnancy. Lakin says that his wife, Sandra, never complained through many years of bearing the physical burdens of contraception.

Although a male contraceptive that uses hormones is unlikely to be available commercially for several years, researchers are testing ways to turn off a man's sperm production without harming his health.

It's a tough task: Women's birth control pills, which are also hormonally based, need only disrupt the monthly release of a single egg. With men, however, researchers must devise a way to stop the release of millions of sperm that could potentially fertilize that egg.

Most research on male hormonal contraceptives focuses on finding the best drugs to suppress sperm production. The tricky part, however, is that when you suppress a man's sperm production, you also suppress his body's production of testosterone. That requires that you supply the man with synthetic testosterone, through injections, patches or gels, to maintain sex drive, sexual potency, hair growth, bone and muscle strength and heart health.

Dr. Christina Wang, a researcher at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, is involved in studies in this country and Europe that are testing combinations of testosterone and other hormones to suppress sperm production without disturbing the prostate gland. She is also involved with ongoing international studies of testosterone alone.

Hormonal contraceptives for women or men don't protect against sexually transmitted diseases, Wang notes. So they work best for people involved in monogamous, long-term relationships.

Once male hormonal contraceptives are widely available, Wang says, a man and woman could share responsibility by switching methods, "so the side effects to both will be lessened."

Lakin volunteered for his first clinical study at Harbor-UCLA after answering a newspaper ad. In 1997, he began taking injections of a hormone that interferes with the release of pituitary hormones and of testosterone. The idea was to shut off the natural production of testosterone and sperm production in his testes, but keep testosterone in his body through supplements.

At first, he said, you feel "like you're 15 again," with raging hormones. But later on, he began experiencing hot flashes, which gave him an appreciation for the hormonal yo-yoing women often endure.

Although the first six-month regimen succeeding in reducing his sperm count, it took 84 days to do so, he said.

In a second six-month trial, in late 1998 and early 1999, he received two sets of Norplant implants in his upper arm and wore testosterone skin patches on his upper body.

The most notable side effect, first detected by his wife, was a noticeable shrinking of his testes--a condition that reversed itself after he completed treatment. Despite that change, he says, the hormones never impaired his ability to perform sexually.

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