TALLINN - Estonian microbiologist Mart Saarma, who heads the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki, has discovered the part of men's brains that regulates sperm differentiation. This discovery could eventually lead the way to the manufacture of male contraceptives - and a drug for curing infertile men.
It will take at least seven to 12 years before the innovation can evolve into a drug, said Saarma.
"We have started cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, but it is not yet clear when the further development of this innovation can produce a drug," said Saarma. "I'm quite sure it won't be a short period or an easy path."
The finding itself was made a while ago and was published in the magazine Science in February 2000. It happened accidentally while searching a growth factor called GDNF (glial-derived neurotrophic factor).
"We made the discovery in close collaboration with professor Hannu Sariola's group in Finland," said Saarma. "We were both interested in GDNF."
GDNF is known as a very potent chemical that stimulates the survival of dopamine neurons and motoneurons. It is therefore considered to be a potential drug for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's Disease and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
Sariola's group has since discovered that GDNF is important for kidney development. Since animals die at birth if the GDNF gene is removed, it is very difficult to analyze its role in the brain.
"So we decided we should try to make transgenic animals that overexpress GDNF in their brains. Completely unexpectedly, these animals had a lot of GDNF in their testes and showed problems with spermatogenesis. That was the starting point, and in fact it took several years before we even reached that point," he said.
After finding that GDNF affects spermatogenesis, Saarma and his team had to collaborate with several other groups before they obtained solid confirmation that GDNF really played a crucial role in spermatogenesis.
Several discoveries have been made that could result in a male contraceptive. There are a number of pharmaceuticals manufacturers around the world competing to produce the first magic pills, which are bound to be extremely lucrative.
One of the most likely drugs to hit the market in the near future is the male sexual hormone testosterone in combination with gestogene.
"Doctor Saarma's foundation offers a new unique opportunity for men to choose the right time to have their babies. It will also hopefully improve the chances of curing infertile men. Men will be given the chance to decide on the time of pregnancy," announced Olev Poolamets, an Estonian urologist.
Saarma, 52, studied biochemistry at the University of Tartu and received his doctorate at the Institute of Molecular Biology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He worked for 16 years at the University of Tartu and 13 years at the Estonian Academy of Sciences before he applied for the post of director in the new Institute of Biotechnology in Helsinki in 1989.
He said his Finnish colleagues had recommended he apply for the job, and that he was very surprised to be selected.
"I started in 1990. My initial idea was to stay for two years. But I have found so many new challenges that I am still working here," he said.