A speedy male fertility test which could spare couples years of uncertainty is on the horizon, scientists say. Researchers have pinpointed diffe
A speedy male fertility test which could spare couples years of uncertainty is on the horizon, scientists say.
Researchers have pinpointed differences in the molecular structure of the sperm in infertile men, which are not present in healthy males.
They say it could pave the way for an immediate and accurate screening method that trumps current tests, which take several months.
Currently, most doctors advise couples try for a baby for at least a year before even attempting to find the cause.
Medics will then analyse semen samples. This involves checking for a low count, any abnormalities in their shape, or sperm that aren’t moving properly.
In most cases, several collections are made over a course of months to get accurate results.
The international team of researchers, led by Washington State University, say their discovery could remove this ‘limbo’ period for millions of couples.
A speedy male fertility test which could spare couples years of uncertainty is on the horizon, an international team of scientists say (file image)
As part of their study, scientists scoured the sperm DNA of both fertile and infertile men.
They knew from previous research there was a possible link between male infertility and alterations to groups of molecules stuck to sperm DNA.
These molecules regulate how certain genes function. The academics found all of the infertile men possessed a specific biomarker which fertile men did not.
They also identified a separate biomarker that could be used to determine who would be responsive to hormone therapy treatment (HRT) – used to treat some patients whose infertility stems from a lack of testosterone.
The researchers are now setting up a much larger clinical trial to test their method for potential commercialisation.
They claim it could not only have major implications for the treatment of male infertility, but for a wide variety of other diseases as well.
Study leader Professor Michael Skinner, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University, said: ‘Having a diagnostic that tells you right away your male patient is infertile and here are the treatment options that will work for him would be immensely useful.’
‘We are interested in investigating a similar diagnostic for determining how patients with arthritis and neurodegenerative diseases such as autism will respond to different treatments.
‘In the area of therapeutics where many of the drugs on the market only work for a fraction of patients, this could ultimately save time, money and facilitate much better healthcare management.’
The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
It comes after a comprehensive review of evidence in 2017, based on 7,500 studies, showed that sperm counts among Western men have more than halved over the past 40 years.
The review authors, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the journal Human Reproduction Update, warned that the decline shows ‘no evidence of abating’.
In the UK, around one in ten men of all ages suffers from infertility – defined as unsuccessfully attempting pregnancy for a year or longer.
That’s according to research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in the journal Human Reproduction in 2016.
Other studies indicate that as many as one in five men under 35 has a low sperm count.
British infertility experts are now beginning to explore the root causes of this 21st century plague.
Already much of the evidence points to chemical pollutants in the air, water and ground around us as the prime culprit.
There is also evidence that parents’ pre-conception lifestyles may affect their children’s health, and even their fertility, and that the problems may be passed on through the parents’ sperm or eggs by changes in the DNA, known as epigenetic changes.
WHAT IS MALE INFERTILITY?
The most common cause of infertility in men is poor-quality semen, the fluid containing sperm that’s ejaculated during sex.
Possible reasons for abnormal semen include:
- a lack of sperm – you may have a very low sperm count or no sperm at all
- sperm that aren’t moving properly – this will make it harder for sperm to swim to the egg
- abnormal sperm – sperm can sometimes be an abnormal shape, making it harder for them to move and fertilise an egg
Many cases of abnormal semen are unexplained.
There’s a link between increased temperature of the scrotum and reduced semen quality, but it’s uncertain whether wearing loose-fitting underwear improves fertility.
The testicles produce and store sperm. If they’re damaged, it can seriously affect the quality of your semen.
This can happen as a result of:
- an infection of your testicles
- testicular cancer
- testicular surgery
- a problem with your testicles you were born with (a congenital defect)
- when one or both testicles hasn’t descended into the scrotum, the loose sac of skin that contains your testicles (undescended testicles)
- injury to your testicles
Some men choose to have a vasectomy if they don’t want children or any more children.
It involves cutting and sealing off the tubes that carry sperm out of your testicles (the vas deferens) so your semen will no longer contain any sperm.
A vasectomy can be reversed, but reversals aren’t usually successful.
Hypogonadism is an abnormally low level of testosterone, the male sex hormone involved in making sperm.
It could be caused by a tumour, taking illegal drugs, or Klinefelter syndrome, a rare syndrome where a man is born with an extra female chromosome.
Medicines and drugs
Certain types of medicines can sometimes cause infertility problems.
These medicines are listed below:
- sulfasalazine – an anti-inflammatory medicine used to treat conditions such as Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis; sulfasalazine can decrease the number of sperm, but its effects are temporary and your sperm count should return to normal when you stop taking it
- anabolic steroids – are often used illegally to build muscle and improve athletic performance; long-term abuse of anabolic steroids can reduce sperm count and sperm mobility
- chemotherapy – medicines used in chemotherapy can sometimes severely reduce sperm production
- herbal remedies – some herbal remedies, such as root extracts of the Chinese herb Tripterygium wilfordii, can affect the production of sperm or reduce the size of your testicles
- illegal drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, can also affect semen quality.