A new form of male contraception and enhanced fertility treatments could both soon be a reality thanks to pioneering work from two University of Wolverhampton scientists. Professor John Howl and Dr Sarah Jones are at the forefront of cell penetrating peptide research which it is hoped could be used in both IVF and birth control techniques in the future. They have teamed up with the University of Aveiro in Portugal on a €194,000 three-year project to look at the impact of cell penetrating peptides – and in particular the way in which they can control the function of sperm.

As part of their extensive research, Professor Howl and Dr Jones, who are part of the University’s Molecular Pharmacology Research Group, have discovered that cell penetrating peptides can be designed to alter the physiology and fertilization capacity of sperm.

This could involve treating sperm with a cell penetrating peptide to improve motility thus aiding fertility.

Conversely, they have also found that cell penetrating peptides could be used to reduce the motility of sperm, and therefore be developed into a new form of birth control.

Dr Jones said: “We are basically designing peptides that can alter the physiology of sperm. Ironically, sperm are notoriously difficult to penetrate, but with cell penetrating peptides we are now able to cross an otherwise impermeable barrier to manipulate the intracellular biology of sperm so as to enhance or inhibit motility. 

 “We hope to develop something that will be clinically useful and can be taken forward in the future.”

Professor Howl, Professor of Molecular Pharmacology, said: “Dr Jones and I have proven, through extensive research studies, that it is feasible to design cell penetrating peptides to be biologically active.

“Such molecules, synthesized in our laboratory, represent a new class of agent that we have named bioportides.  This state-of-the-art technology enables the control of processes that happen inside cells and which often represent intractable targets for conventional drugs.”

Attempts to develop a male pill so far have been unsuccessful owing to alterations in male hormone levels which can be irreversible. Cell penetrating peptides have the potential to change sperm motility, without affecting male hormonal control systems.

The cell penetrating peptides can easily be made to incorporate a fluorescent dye which can be used to determine the distribution and precise intracellular location of these peptides within living sperm when visualised with a confocal microscope.

Dr Jones and Professor Howl are using bovine sperm but partners in Portugal have access to human sperm so can repeat the experiments conducted in UK for further testing.