The discovery of a gene essential for sperm development could eventually lead to the creation of a new type of male contraceptive in the future, Scottish scientists said on Friday. It could also help finding treatments for male infertility.
The gene – called Katnal1 – is critical to sperm production because it enables sperm to mature in the testes. If scientists can regulate the Katnal1 gene in the testes, they could prevent sperm from maturing completely, making them ineffective, without changing hormone levels.
It is the first study to show that Katnal1, via its effects on microtubule dynamics within the testis, is required for male fertility. “If we can find a way to target this gene in the testes, we could potentially develop a non-hormonal contraceptive,” said Dr. Lee Smith, a reader in genetic endocrinology at the Medical Research Council Center for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh.
Scottish scientists funded by the Medical Research Council found that male mice, which were modified so they did not have the Katnal1 gene, were infertile. Further investigation showed that this was because the gene is needed to regulate a scaffolding structure, known as microtubules, which forms part of the cells that support and provide nutrients to developing sperm.
“The important thing is that the effects of such a drug would be reversible because Katnal1 only affects sperm cells in the later stages of development, so it would not hinder the early stages of sperm production and the overall ability to produce sperm,” said Smith. “Although other research is being carried out into non-hormonal male contraceptives, identification of a gene that controls sperm production in the way Katnal1 does is unique and a significant step forward in our understanding of testis biology.”