We use cotton to make our clothes and underwear — but should we start using a chemical made by cotton to control how we use what is in our underwear?
A large study conducted by the Chinese government determined gossypol, a defensive chemical that's found in cotton, to be an amazingly efficient male oral contraceptive. Why are men not using gossypol as a birth control aid? More importantly, would you want to rely on guys to cover the bases of contraception in any case?
A secret inside cottonseed oil
From the 1920s to 1950s, couples cooking with cottonseed oil made an astute observation. These couples, nestled in the Jiangxi province of Southern China, could not conceive children.
In the years following, scientists isolated gossypol, the organic molecule that is the contraceptive agent found in cottonseed oil. Gossypol is present in cotton plants to protect leaves from insect attacks. Without gossypol, cotton crops would be eaten weeks prior to harvest.
The additional contraceptive action of gossypol, however, made it worthy of a wide-scale look.
China administers gossypol to males
In tests conducted by the Chinese government involving ten thousand males during the 1970s, gossypol worked quite well as an oral male contraceptive. A regiment of 20 milligrams of gossypol a day for 1-2 months followed by smaller booster doses provided protection from pregnancy in 99% of cases — a value in line with female contraceptives. Men taking gossypol for an extended period of time also experienced extremely low to zero sperm counts for up to four years after they quit taking the oral contraceptive.
It cannot be that easy, right? If it is, all men would be taking the little "g" pill. Unfortunately, Chinese studies showed that up to 10% percent of men taking gossypol as a contraceptive aid developed hypokalemia, a potassium deficiency with life threatening results. Hypokalemia can lead to some pretty horrible health effects — paralysis, extreme fatigue, and heart abnormalities. Potassium supplements taken simultaneously with gossypol did not decrease the occurrence of hypokalemia among men in the study, thus effectively killing any hope for gossypol as a chemical contraceptive.
The study shed light on an additional problem when gossypol is used as a contraceptive - roughly twenty-five hundred of the men in the study experienced irreversible sterility.
The Chinese government abandoned their gossypol project in the mid-1980s, but clinical research continues on a much smaller scale in Brazil and Nigeria, where a lower doses (7.5 to 15 milligrams) and a modified dosage pattern could lead to an inexpensive and potent contraceptive.
Within the cell, gossypol prevents dehydrogenases from working, enzymes used by the cell in the process of creating energy. When gossypol is present, the cells essentially starve.
The ability for gossypol to "starve" cells is being analyzed for use in cancer drugs, with the hope that gossypol could prevent malignant tumor growth. Gossypol also prevents the HIV-1 virus from replicating in laboratory studies, but its ability to prevent replication of HIV-1 in humans remains unknown due to the numerous side effects concurrent with taking gossypol.
Top image courtesy of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Sources linked within the article.