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Paternity test

Medicine | Birth control: Will men remember to take pills?

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

The women's lib movement in the 1960s exalted birth control pills for granting women sexual freedom. Forty years later, remembering to take The Pill daily has turned into a new ball-and-chain, and women may soon pass that duty on to men.

In the last two months, researchers in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Italy announced two competing projects to develop male contraceptive pills, both with promising results. One, discovered in the United Kingdom, would inhibit the release of sperm. Men could take it shortly before intercourse, and its effects would wear off within a day.

The other option, researched by American and Italian scientists, would stop the body from producing sperm altogether. The effect it would have on long-term fertility is not clear. Both pills await human testing in clinical trials.

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Public discourse about the man-pill is substantially calmer than the 1960s debate over the morality of female contraception. Doctors and journalists are spending more time speculating whether men can be trusted to remember to take the pill. "Men aren't completely reliable," said Dr. David Katz, a medical expert who makes regular appearances on ABC News. "If you forget to take it, then obviously it can't work."

New blood

Jerry's Kids might find their brightest hope yet in a noncontroversial stem-cell treatment discovered by scientists in Italy. The scientists have discovered a stem cell in healthy blood vessels of dogs that reverses the effects of the most common form of muscular dystrophy (MD). Muscular dystrophy prevents the bodies of children, usually boys, from producing the protein dystrophin, which is necessary for muscle strength. MD usually leads to death by age 30.

One of the scientists involved in the study receives funding from the Muscular Dystrophy Association, beneficiary of the well-known American telethon that Jerry Lewis hosts each Labor Day. The MDA reported that the researchers isolated stem cells called mesoangioblasts that, when injected into the bloodstreams of dogs, found their way to the animals' muscles and started making the protein. The dogs regained muscle strength and the ability to move normally. The experiment previously worked in rats, but its success in dogs is significant because their MD pathology mimics that of humans more than any other animal's.

In 2004, Italy banned research on stem cells harvested from human embryos, but the country's scientists continue discovering possible medical treatments using stem cells taken from various parts of the body after birth.

Making the Rounds

AIDS: Scientific predictions about death and disease from decades past grossly underestimated the worldwide spread of AIDS, a new study claims. Two researchers at the World Health Organization published a study in November saying that by 2030 AIDS will move from fourth to third on the list of worldwide causes of death. AIDS now kills about 2.8 million people each year; that number could rise to 6.5 million by 2030, the study predicts. Ideal conditions for socioeconomic development and AIDS treatment could hold the number to 3.7 million.

BREAST CANCER: Researchers have found that the chemical compound used in the RU-486 abortion pill can prevent breast cancer in mice. Scientists at the University of California-Irvine found a link between the female reproductive hormone progesterone and breast cancer in mice with mutated BRCA-1 genes. The mice that received RU-486, which blocks the effects of progesterone, remained tumor-free throughout the study.

The researchers do not recommend RU-486 as a cancer prevention drug because of its side effects, but they do say that safer progesterone-blocking medicines now being developed could prevent breast cancer in women who test positive for a BRCA mutation.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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