Emory biologist receives grant for male contraceptive research

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Jan. 23, 2020

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Biology professor Steven L’Hernault is working to develop a platform to use nematode worms to screen for male contraceptive candidates that block the binding of sperm and egg. Emory Photo/Video

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Steven L’Hernault, professor and chair of biology at Emory, has been awarded a grant from the Male Contraceptive Initiative to support his novel research focused on the development of male contraceptive methods.

L’Hernault will receive $150,000 to aid his work regarding a potential new form of male contraception. His project focuses on developing a platform to use nematode worms to screen for male contraceptive candidates that block the binding of sperm and egg. Drugs identified in this screen can be further developed and tested as hormone-free contraceptives. The project provides a unique approach toward contraception and highlights the opportunity for innovation in the field. 

“The early stages of male contraceptive drug discovery are especially challenging because there is a lack of high-throughput screening methods within the context of fertilization,” says L’Hearnault. “We expect that our novel approach will address this current gap in our knowledge and we look forward to contributing to the Male Contraceptive Initiative’s mission of finding suitable nonhormonal contraceptive lead compounds.”

L'Hernault’s research focuses on sperm proteins (not male hormones) in nematode worms. His work has previously established a connection between fertilization in mammals (including humans) and nematodes. It was a highly unexpected outcome, given the two animal groups last shared a common ancestor about a billion years ago. That finding provided new insights to the basic mechanics of sperm and egg fertilization. 

“At the end of the day, fertilization in humans seems to share some fundamental features with fertilization in worms,” L’Hernault says. “Specifically, a similar protein is found on the sperm surface in humans and worms and, if a drug could be discovered that interfered with its function, we might be able to prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg.”

With more than $3 million invested in male contraceptive product development, MCI, a private, nonprofit foundation, seeks to push male contraceptive research projects toward market by funding grants in the drug development pipeline, from early stage screening of drugs up to studies that pave the way for early clinical trials. In addition to facilitating research and development of male contraceptives for people worldwide, MCI builds awareness among researchers, donors and the general public about the demand for and status of novel male contraceptive methods.

Through its funding efforts, the non-profit has championed this mission in numerous ways: investing in promising product development; supporting students and young professionals through fellowships and travel grants; and consistently advocating with the public and media for an increased method mix that includes male contraception.

“More and more men are expressing the desire to participate in contraception with their partners,” says Heather Vahdat, MCI executive director. “We are confident that the time is right to emphatically get behind the talent and energy in the field in order to achieve a real vision for a contraceptive future.”