At first sight the plant is inconspicuous, and to the untrained eye looks like something that would not be out of place in a run-of-the-mill garden center.
But scientists in Indonesia have detected within its leaves something that could potentially have far-reaching implications for population control and family planning efforts across the globe: an ingredient that could form the basis of a male contraceptive pill.
Clinical trials testing whether the medicinal qualities of the plant in question – known as gandarusa – can be harnessed for an effective male contraceptive pill. The trials are ongoing in Indonesia, the fourth-most populated country in the world, and scientists conducting the tests say that preliminary results are promising.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Aside from vasectomies or condoms, there are few reliable contraceptive options for men, with success in bringing a male contraceptive pill to market to date proving elusive.
“Gandarusa has been used for years by people in the provinces of West Papua and Papua as a traditional form of male contraception,” says Dr Bambang Prajogo of Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, who is leading the clinical trials.
“But today Indonesia faces a big problem in terms of the size of its population, so it needs something like gandarusa to help limit the population and improve the lives of future generations.”
According to the World Bank, Indonesia’s population has grown from 145 million in 1980 to 246 million in 2012. The country has by far the largest population in Southeast Asia and if its current rate of growth persists, it will reach 289 million by 2050, says the Bank.
“But Indonesia is also very rich in biodiversity, with over 30,000 flowers and 7,000 medicinal plants,” Prajogo tells The Diplomat. “There are a lot of opportunities here to explore the potential of these plants for medicine.”
With this in mind, Prajogo’s team in Surabaya has been testing one such plant – gandarusa – for more than 20 years.
They have taken gandarusa samples from the Indonesian islands of Papua, Java and Kalimantan, drying leaves from the plant and then grinding them into powder form so they can extract the substance required for the contraceptive, which Prajogo says is known as “Gandarusin A.”
“The mechanism of sperm penetration is done through three enzymes,” he explains. “Gandarusin A slows down these enzymes, resulting in their inability to penetrate the ovum.”
Since clinical trials of gandarusa began in 2008, Prajogo says he has tested over 500 males and has found almost no side effects from using the drug.
“All organs functioned normally, but we also found that the pill acted as an aphrodisiac,” he says. “After one month of not taking the pill, fertility levels returned to normal in all users.”
The team also found the pill largely did its job, with only one pregnancy reported throughout the clinical trials to date.
Prajogo is uncertain when gandarusa would be available in pharmacies, as the third phase of the clinical trials was incomplete and the drug had to be registered with the Indonesian National Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency (BPOM) before it could proceed to market.