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The Challenge

Dr. Joseph C. Hall credits his wife as the driving force that has kept him involved in research for nearly two decades to develop a male birth control pill.

In the early 1990s Hall and his wife, who had just had their sixth child, were discussing who should get surgery to prevent more pregnancies when Mrs. Hall gave her husband a challenge, “‘You’re the chemist, you come up with something,’” he recalls.

Since then, Hall, an associate professor of chemistry at Norfolk State University in Virginia, has applied his expertise in isolating the enzymes involved in fertilization. In computer simulated models, Hall and his team have inhibited the activity of four enzymes that aid in conception.

“We have to synthesize it and then test it,” Hall says of the barrier method.

The goal is to create a pill, that when taken by men, would essentially “blind” their sperm, making it impossible for them to identify and penetrate an egg.

For years researchers worldwide have sought to create effective and reliable male contraception beyond condoms and surgery. British scientists are currently working on a form of birth control that would prevent men from ejaculating.

Hall’s method, however, would not affect reproductive functioning or manipulate hormones in the body. He estimates his pill is at least five years away from being sold on the market.

“We have done no trials yet,” Hall says. “We are patenting the compound before we start clinical trials on it.”

Dr. Adrian Dobs, a professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, says the development of a male birth control pill “would just be revolutionary; similar to when oral contraceptives came out for women.”

She notes that the World Health Organization views male contraception as a means of addressing family planning needs in various parts of the world.

“There are many stable relationships and marriages where this would be a wonderful option,” Dobs says.

Hall was named in 1991 the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator, an award given to one of the most creative under 35 scientists of the year.

Hall joined Norfolk State in 1997 and, in 2005, received a $3.6 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health over five years to create a Center for Biotechnology and Biomedical Sciences, which Hall now directs. In addition to funding Hall’s research, the grant is designed to increase the number of minority students and faculty studying in the biomedical sciences.

The desire to guide minority students into scientific research is partly what brought Hall to Norfolk State. “I try to involve undergrads in a lot of the research,” he says.

He notes, that while historically Black institutions generate nearly half of all Black science graduates earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the number of science graduates earning doctorates from these schools is small.

“In 1985, I was the only Black to get a Ph.D. in chemistry in the country,” says Hall, who earned his doctorate from Kent State University in Ohio.

The NIH is particularly concerned about the low percentage of Black scientists, “because there are a number of diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans, such as diabetes and HIV,” Hall says.

The lack of diversity in terms of gender and race in scientific research means there’s less focus on improving the health outcomes of these populations, he says.

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