John Aitken Engage post

2015 Alumni Lecture: the future of sex

Laureate Professor John Aitken believes creating better methods of contraception and curing infertility are the two single most important issues facing the world – and this global authority on reproductive biology is leading the charge to achieve both.

Professor Aitken, who arrived from the University of Edinburgh to take up a Chair in Biological Sciences at the University of Newcastle in 1999, is now a leader of a 50-strong research team studying fertility and contraception, which has attracted almost $50 million in funding.

“Each year the reproductive needs of some 120 million couples worldwide go unmet. I believe that finding more effective ways to control fertility is a critical global issue while, at an individual level, we should never forget the large number of couples seeking safe, effective solutions to their infertility,” Professor Aitken, Director of the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Reproductive Science said.

“Essentially, all the world’s problems are, one way or the other, connected to sustainable world population growth. If we get control of populations numbers, we can solve many of the difficulties facing mankind.”

The 2012 New South Wales Scientist of the Year says the ‘urgent need’ to develop better contraception is demonstrated by the 46 million abortions performed worldwide every year due to people falling pregnant unintentionally. In Australia one in five pregnancies are aborted each year, equalling around 70,000 terminations, many in the under 19 or over 40 age groups.

“I regard abortion not as a moral failure but a contraception failure. We just don’t have the right methods to empower women to control their own fertility,” he said.

“If you think about human contraception it hasn’t actually moved on since the contraceptive pill was introduced in 1960 and that was based on the biochemistry of the 1930s. When you think of all the miracles of modern medicine that have transformed healthcare in the last century here is something that touches all of our lives and it has been totally neglected.”

A world-first female contraception developed by Professor Aitken’s research group that simultaneously paralyses sperm and protects from sexually-transmitted diseases is currently undergoing safety trials.

Professor Aitken said the compound, which may eventually take the form of a sponge or vaginal ring, to be inserted two to three days before sexual intercourse, is activated only when in contact with semen.

“The invention is ground-breaking in that the compound does not kill sperm but targets their ability to swim, and is therefore much safer for women. If the chemical succeeds in both animal and human trials, it will be the first major advance in contraception since the pill was introduced more than five decades ago.”

Professor Aitken said the discovery had the potential to address the global pandemic in sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition to this potentially revolutionary contraception for women, Professor Aitken and his research team are chasing the holy grail – a male contraceptive pill.

“Male reproduction is much more complicated. You’re not trying to stop the ovulation of one egg a month. You’re trying to stop the production of a thousand sperm a second,” he said.

“Our reproductive science group covers everything from conception, sperm and egg meeting one another and fertilising the egg and the very early stages of development all the way through to parturition and at both ends of the reproductive process there are pathological problems that we’re interested in trying to solve.”


Hear Professor John Aitken speak on the critical factors influencing the fertility of humankind at the 2015 Alumni Lecture, on Tuesday 2 June at Watt Street Arc. Attendance is free, but registration is essential.


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