A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer
Jul05

A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer

Once upon a time, I was a full-fledged chemist doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Like any other postdoc, I have fond memories of leaving grad school, being paid a little more, and having more control over my research. And of course, I have warm recollections of leaving work in the wee hours of the night … and having to wait for the family of deer surrounding my car to move off so I could drive home. That ISN’T the typical postdoc experience, you say? Okay, fine. But it is at NIST. Most folks who work on the Gaithersburg campus have similar deer encounters pretty regularly. In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the wild horse and donkey overpopulation problem in the western U.S. The National Research Council recently released a report suggesting ways of managing the animals. One proposed solution is to give the critters birth control. This brought me back to my days at NIST. I vividly remember being told during my postdoctoral orientation that I would encounter a lot of deer while on campus AND that the lab was dealing with the situation by giving the animals birth control. At the time, I laughed at what I thought was a reasonably silly situation. While I worked at the agency between 2006 and 2008, its campus was home to approximately 200 deer. Today, the population is probably a little less than that—around 150 or so, says Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for NIST. But in the mid-1990s, about 300 deer resided on the grassy campus with its ponds and wooded canopies. “That’s crazy for a campus that’s only a square mile,” says Allen T. Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. First of all, a tract of land that size can’t provide enough nutrition for that many animals. And second of all, when the population gets that large, animal-human interactions don’t usually end well: In the 1990s, when the deer population was at its peak on campus, it wasn’t uncommon for about 25 deer to be killed annually in collisions with vehicles on and adjacent to the NIST campus. During rutting season, “we even had a few cases of male deer seeing a reflection and jumping through windows” into labs, Newman says. I’m particularly thankful I missed those days. It’s one thing to see a doe with its fawns cuddling under the trees as you leave work. It’s quite another to come face to face with a sexually aggressive deer...

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On Birth Control,“Plan B,” and…Batman
Dec09

On Birth Control,“Plan B,” and…Batman

The “morning-after” pill, used to prevent conception when other planning methods fail, became a political lightning rod this week. Reports by Pharmalot, NPR, Reuters, and many others relate how the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blocked an FDA recommendation to provide over-the-counter access to this treatment to a wider range of patients (currently, women under the age of 17 must have a prescription to obtain Plan B). After the uproar generated by the announcement, I wondered what, exactly, was this contentious molecule, and what did it do? In the US, hospitals administer Plan B as two small pills, each with a 750 μg dose of the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel. First approved by the FDA in 1999, levonorgestrel prompted several companies, among them generic manufacturers Barr, Watson, and Teva, to jump in as suppliers in the ensuing decade. According to a 2011 Teva patent, Plan B is most effective when taken within 72 hours of when a person’s first-line contraceptive fails. The FDA estimates its success rate at 80-90%. Levonorgestrel binds to the same receptors as other sex hormones (think estradiol or progesterone), and prevents ovulation or impairs fertilization of egg cells. Some researchers believe that Plan B prohibits already-fertilized eggs from adhering to the endometrium (uterine inner wall), which might prevent further embryonic development leading to pregnancy. In fact, a large dose of 17-α-ethinylestradiol (EE) – the main ingredient in most birth control pills – can sometimes be used “off-label” to achieve the same effect. The uncertainty over whether Plan B actually terminates pregnancies brings it onto similar ground with mifepristone (RU-486) and diethylstilbestrol (DES). These two drugs, previously popular options for emergency contraception, have mixed public perception today; many associate RU-486 with abortion, and DES with endocrine disorders and tumor formation in offspring. Chemistry Note: It’s humbling to watch Mother Nature re-use the same chemical templates over and over, and that small changes in the overall steroid structure lead to huge biochemical consequences. Like Batman, with his never-ending supply of utility-belt gadgets, the steroid core structure can be tweaked in seemingly endless ways to produce biologically active molecules. I would have to devote (several) more posts to just how many modifications, but think about the effects simple oxidation (bile acids), ring expansion (cortistatins), or conjugation (sulfonated sterols) have on biological processes. The sex hormones have been puzzling synthetic chemists for nearly 100 years; in fact, two prominent chemists spent large portions of their careers perfecting the introduction of a single methyl group into the steroid core! Levonorgestrel claims “second-generation” hormone status; next-gen progestins, such as desogestrel, do away completely with C-3 oxygenation, and sport...

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