Male Infertility - Finding New Ways to Beat an Old Problem
The incidence of infertility among couples of reproductive age is about 9%. Out of this, male infertility is the cause between 30 to 50% of the time. The exact causes of male infertility vary, but the most common one is low sperm count.
Low sperm count is characterized by low sperm motility and a deficiency in sperm function. The conditions are often accompanied or exacerbated by the presence of abnormally shaped and sized sperm, as well as others with DNA damage. Together, these conditions result in sperm either being unable to fertilize the egg, or being unable to reach the egg for the process to begin at all.
To put the odds of successful fertilization in context: only about 10 out of the millions of sperm reach the egg even in natural fertilization with normal sperm.
Until now, the prevalent method of separating healthy sperm from the pool has been centrifugation. This involves a sample of sperm being spun rapidly around for a period. The process separates healthy from unhealthy sperm based largely on the difference in their motility levels.
Unfortunately, the utility of this method is hampered by the fact that it boosts the levels of certain chemicals that are known to damage sperm DNA. Damaged DNA has been linked to increased failed pregnancy rates, decreased chances of pregnancy and even elevated rates of disease in offspring conceived using such sperm. Couple this problem with its inability to differentiate between sperm that may be morphologically normal but immature or near death from those which are of the right age and centrifugation no longer seems as attractive an option.
A new system of obtaining healthy sperm that seems to offer promise comes under the umbrella of microfluidic technology. The crux of its popularity lies in its elimination of the harmful centrifugation step. Instead, the semen is placed in a device which comprises of two chambers divided by a porous membrane. The chambers are designed to mimic conditions inside a woman's genital tract.
Healthy and motile sperm are able to swim through the membrane, leaving less healthy and dead sperm behind. Researchers were astounded to find that the motility level of sperm in the second chamber was almost 100%. This high concentration of healthy sperm greatly improves the chances of successful pregnancy using traditional insemination methods like IVF.
Another advantage of microfluidic methods is their low cost. Almost 50 million couples around the world fail to have children even after five years of trying. Among them, there are many for whom a quick, affordable technique like this will finally bring the wonder and joy of the pitter-patter of tiny feet.