Scientists identify functional sperm in infertile men – study

Science and Health

Scientists have found a new way to better diagnose one of the most common forms of severe male infertility, a recent study revealed.

The researchers behind the study were able to discover intact and functional sperm in infertile men in a non-invasive way, which can help ease diagnosis in the future. In addition, it is also thought that it could help treat this condition and aid in the surgical extraction of intact and functional sperm, allowing infertile men to father children.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Molecular & Cellular Proteomics.

Can male infertility be treated or overcome?

Male infertility is thought to impact a significant minority of the global population, with 15% of couples worldwide dealing with infertility, and around 50% of that 15% is due to male infertility.

There are several different forms of male infertility, but the most common severe form is non-obstructive azoospermia (NOA).  

Sperm (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

This condition causes men to not release sperm when they ejaculate, likely due to poor sperm development.

There are a number of things that can cause NOA. These include genetic abnormalities, which are thought to be the reason behind 10% of cases, as well as hormonal issues, such as a deficiency in the production of pituitary hormones.

NOA does have workarounds. This includes treatments, such as making necessary lifestyle changes or taking the proper inhibitor treatments or hormone therapy needed to rectify the cause. In other cases

However, as reproductive technology has advanced, another method has been made available: Extracting sperm through surgery. This is a procedure known as testicular sperm extraction (TESE) and is done by essentially surgically extracting tissue from the testicles to extract any viable sperm, which can then be used in in-vitro fertilization.

However, this comes with issues. For one thing, sperm extracted via TESE can have lower mobility, which can cause issues with fertilization. However, this process isn’t always successful and it can take up to 10 hours.

TESE also comes with risks of complications. It can result in testicular abnormalities, reduce overall functionality, and can even result in testosterone deficiency.

But the researchers behind this study worked to find a better way: To diagnose NOA through a noninvasive method and to find a way to detect intact functional sperm.

To this extent, the researchers conducted a mass spectrometry test, which is normally used to measure charged ions, but can also be used to measure sperm quality. 

This test was conducted on patients who were already confirmed to have NOA thanks to a biopsy, as well as on a control group of men with normal fertility.

Through this analytical method, the researchers sifted through the cell debris and underdeveloped sperm cells, all with the goal of tracking down the few viable sperm cells that could be lurking.

As a result, the researchers identified two proteins that are present in intact sperm in men with NOA, AKAP4 and ASPX, the former located in the tail of the sperm cell while the latter is located in the sperm cell’s head. 

The presence of these two proteins seems to be a sign of NOA infertility in men, which could better serve as a way of diagnosing it in patients in a non-invasive way. 

However, exactly what functions AKAP4 and ASPX might serve are not clear. Further research on it could potentially work to find treatment methods.

In addition, the study’s results could also help pave the way for a non-hormonal, non-surgical form of contraceptive for men, a potential male birth control. But further research is needed to determine this.