PRI Review

Blasted Ovaries: The Failure of Contraceptive Vaccines

A leading medical researcher recently abandoned thirty years of contraceptive vaccine research because she found that the female body refused to attack its own reproduction. Science once again affirms the incorrigible strength of the female physical design.

Be it in rural China, the African bush, or the metropolitan West, women’s bodies are daily barraged with a plethora of attacks on their reproductive functions. Pills, patches, surgical inserts, foaming tablets all to stop the woman’s system from its most integral work, continuing its kind. These contraceptives, however, invade the woman with a foreign material that aborts the natural reproductive process. What Dr. Bonnie Dunbar hoped to develop was a vaccine that would trick the female immune system into fighting reproductive cells as if they were a virus. Dr. Dunbar’s vaccine was an insidious attempt to make the body treat pregnancy as a disease.

The motivation behind her contraceptive research was, not surprisingly, population control. “I spent over 20 years developing vaccines, contraceptive vaccines,” Dr. Dunbar explained, “because in my young years I had a vision that maybe we could help the world population problem and provide women with an option for birth control that was not invasive in our hormones or our systems or otherwise have the side effects we now see with a lot of contraceptive methods.” Presumably, she hoped that the vaccine’s immunity to pregnancy would last several years at least and thereby prove a more effective population control in developing nations than the pill or other short term contraceptive methods.

Among the many successes of her long and brilliant career, Dr. Dunbar served as a staff scientist for the Harbor Branch Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and — no great surprise — The Population Council, Rockefeller University. She has received many awards for her decades of work on contraceptive vaccines and in 1994 was honored by NIH as the First Margaret Pittman Lecturer. She is a founding member of The Africa Biomedical Center in Kenya, where she now makes her home. Over the years, Dr. Dunbar was a WHO and USAID advisor in many projects in developing countries including China, India, South America, and Africa. (It is of interest that all these regions are chief targets for U.N. population control programs.)

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Dunbar recently at the 4th International Public Conference on Vaccination. She came from Kenya to present the results of her failed vaccine research and make a startling appeal for a redirection of funding away from HIV/AIDS and contraceptive vaccine research to primary African health needs and — you saw it coming — population reduction.

When she began her quest, as a graduate student, to develop a contraceptive vaccine, Dr. Dunbar noticed that many infertile women had antibodies to their own zona pellucida, preventing the sperm from binding, penetrating, and fertilizing the egg. (The zona pellucida is the glycoprotein surrounding the female ovum or egg.) This became the basis for Dr. Dunbar’s research hypothesis.

“Over the years then,” she explained, “we thought that if women who were infertile had these antibodies, but they were otherwise perfectly healthy, that this might be an effective contraception that would prevent fertilization and not be abortive, would not interfere with the endocrine system.” She hoped to imitate this natural infertility disorder, to make a vaccine that would cause a healthy woman to develop an immune response to her own eggs. “Our goal with our vaccine was to develop autoimmunity,” Dr. Dunbar calmly announced.

So how Dr. Dunbar proposed to generate autoimmunity was to inject her test rabbits, not with their own zona pellucida glycoproteins which were too similar to other rabbit proteins to do anything, but with pig proteins, which are just foreign enough to “trick the rabbit into inducing antibodies against its own self proteins.” This was effective; her injection caused an autoimmune response in the injected rabbits. There was, interestingly, a more than minor difficulty that proved insurmountable.

“We found out when we immunized these animals, however, that we completely destroyed the ovaries,” Dr. Dunbar admitted. “Unfortunately, we weren't just looking at preventing fertilization now; we generated a complete autoimmune disease, which is also known as premature ovarian failure.”

She tested the vaccine in several animal models, including primates, and found in all cases that the vaccine caused permanent autoimmune failure of the ovaries. Viewing slides of these blasted ovaries, which had been completely destroyed by the female’s own body, Dr. Dunbar came to a decision. Acting with an integrity often absent among anti-fertility researchers, she resolutely opposed any further development of this vaccine for humans. “I am responsible,” Dr. Dunbar declared, “for killing this vaccine for further human research, and I made some people in my biotech company and some other people very unhappy.”

Now, this former contraceptive vaccine is being developed as a possible non-surgical sterilizing agent for dogs and eats, and is also used to cull the restricted African elephant population. We have no objection.

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