CHAPEL HILL – Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are studying how laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight harmful pathogens such as viruses could be the newest means of providing birth control.

These monoclonal antibodies are described by the researhcers as described by the researchers as synthetic versions of natural antibodies the human immune system uses to disable invading germs and could immobilize sperm so it cannot reach an egg, according to findings published in Science Translational Medicine.

Such antibodies are often used to combat invading germs and have been used to treat a variety of medical conditions including cancer and COVID-19.

According to the researchers, the concept was developed “after an antibody contraception blocked sperm during large animal testing and showed potential as a non-hormonal option to prevent pregnancy.”

“Many women avoid hormonal contraception because of real and perceived side effects,” said Samuel Lai, professor in the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy in a statement shared with WRAL TechWire. Noted side effects could include irregular bleeding, nausea, and migraines, UNC shared in a statement.

Lai and scientists are studying how a new type of contraceptive could be designed.  According to the statement issued by UNC, that design is “an intravaginal ring that steadily releases the antibodies, or a dissolvable film placed in the vagina where it spreads antibodies before sex.”

For the study, monoclonal antibodies were designed to bind to a single substance in the body: to target sperm.

UNC notes that monoclonal antibodies are often cost-prohibitive due to their expense, putting usefulness as an affordable contraception at risk. So the researchers successfully engineered “ultra-potent sperm-binding antibodies” that may in fact result in a cost-effective contraceptive.

“We think these second-generation molecules will provide not only greater potency but will translate to lower costs that make the approach cost-effective,” said Lai, in a statement.  Lai also is the founder and interim CEO of the company Mucommune, based in Research Triangle Park.

According to UNC, the antibodies used in the research eliminated all progressively motile sperm, meaning that the sperm could move, even with small doses in sheep studies.

Additional research will be conducted, and clinical trials could happen as soon as 2023, UNC noted.

“We were inspired by infertility that occurs in some women who develop antibodies against their partner’s sperm,” said study first author Bhawana Shrestha, a doctoral student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the UNC School of Medicine and graduate research assistant at the school of pharmacy in a statement.

The antibody that is being tested by researchers like Lai and Shrestha was isolated from an infertile woman, according to  UNC, and targets a unique surface antigen present on human sperm.  When it’s added to sperm, the sperm quickly clump together, Shrestha said.  That “in turn blocks sperm from reaching the egg altogether, enabling potent, non-hormonal contraception with a pharmacological mechanism that’s already been validated in women.”