Photo Credit: Pizza Luce - Seward



Whenever I go to local restaurants, I always try to strike up a conversation with the server.  Here in Minneapolis, many servers are students at our numerous colleges and universities. Having worked at a restaurant while in college, I have a lot of empathy for these folks.

Sometimes I get a big surprise. This happened recently with a server who attended MCAD—the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. When he learned that I did some polymer chemistry, he asked if I knew about the male contraceptive system, being developed in India, that was polymer based. Never heard of it.  One of my colleagues, the medicinal chemist Gunda Georg, has been working in this area for some time, so I try to follow the topic.  Of course, it is a very important one.

So what’s this about?  A quick check revealed a very interesting story. A maverick Indian scientist, S.K. Guha is finally getting attention.  He even scored a $100,00 grant from the Gates Foundation.  This injectable polymeric system—styrene/maleic anhydride—is referred to by the acronym RISUG, short for Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance. The polymer coats the interior of the vas deferens and inactivates sperm as they pass by. The method seems to work for ten years and a reversal procedure is available.  According to “Our research has convinced us that RISUG is the most promising of the potential male contraceptives.”

So what’s the problem here?  Do the clinical trials, make sure the method is safe and Bob’s your uncle?  Not so fast there, pardner.

“We had no support from industry,” said Guha. As Elaine Lisser, a San Francisco activist for male contraception put it: “To men, an ideal method would be cheap and long-lasting. To company shareholders, an ideal method would be expensive and temporary.”

Now I’m not trying to push some great conspiracy theory about Big Pharm. We’ve heard it all before. They HAVE a cure for x, or y, or z, but they are not revealing it because they can make more money from selling drugs to treat the disease.

But in some public health matters there is no economic incentive for pharma to step in because they cannot make the kind of money they need to operate from something like RISUG.  Another recent example of a rather simple approach to a serious problem that will probably not be too popular with pharma is the diagnosis of pre-cancerous cervical lesions with vinegar.  See the New York Times article: Fighting Cervical Cancer with Vinegar and Ingenuity.

When vinegar is applied to the cervix, white spots may become visible. These resemble warts and may be removed by cryotherapy—freezing—using a metal probe cooled by a tank of carbon dioxide. Where there’s Coke, there’s CO2.  This method has the potential to do for underdeveloped countries what the PAP smear has done for countries like the U.S. The death rate for cervical cancer worldwide is about 250,000.  The vast majority occurring where PAP smears are not readily available to a poor population.

Intelligent use of foreign aid, Gates money, and public health research may yield more benefit than higher-tech approaches that pharma necessarily pursues.

I thank Guy Wagner, server at Pizza Luce, for calling this topic to my attention.


A modified version of this piece was originally posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm Blog.