Powerful magnets may be the key to developing new diagnostic sperm tests for male infertility, according to new research. Scientists from the SPERM (Spectroscopic Probes of Energy Regulation & Metabolism) research project have found that magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS, a technique similar to MRI scans) can detect molecular differences between good and bad sperm in live samples. Their work is published in the journal Molecular Human Reproduction.
“The work so far has identified molecules that have differing concentrations in sperm that have been separated into low and high-quality populations,” coauthor Steven Reynolds of the University of Sheffield in the UK told Fatherly. But Reynolds cautions that it will be some time before his work translate into clinical applications.“This is basic science into sperm dysfunction,” he says. “It would be five to ten years before the findings could potentially find clinical use.”
The SPERM research team began their project after discovering that MRS could pinpoint the chemical signatures of sperm metabolism, identifying the tail-wiggling engines in live sperm. Unlike traditional sperm research, which involves killing the sperm in the preparation process, analysis with MRS leaves the sperm alive. That means researchers can salvage studied sperm and use them in fertility procedures afterward, if deemed appropriate.
Dr. Paul Turek, a urologist who is unaffiliated with the SPERM project, sees promise in the new research. Turek explains that the non-invasive, no-touch nature of MRS is exactly what would make it useful for clinicians. “Knowing as much as I know about it, I think there’s a lot of potential and it’s not harmful,” he says. Indeed, Turek has published his own research on using MRS technology in sperm research. With the SPERM project’s technique, he says, “you could literally scan a semen analysis and figure out which ones are the best ones and grab them.”
Beyond fertility treatments, Turek envisions MRS technology eventually replacing outdated methods of sperm analysis. “The semen analysis is a 50 year old test and is a relatively blunt instrument,” Turek says. “Any test that improves our ability to judge sperm quality safely has value.”
The MRS scan begins with density centrifugation, which involves spinning the sample rapidly to separate dense, healthy sperm from both seminal fluid and less dense, poor quality sperm. Once prepared, the sperm sample is essentially bombarded with pulses of energy, which bounce of the sperm differently based on molecular composition. In that way, the pulses of energy function as a sort of sperm radar, capable of detecting differences in sperm structure. “The MRS data from these sperm populations found differences that may be associated with the underlying structure of sperm,” Reynolds says. “At this stage we have identified some interesting molecules. The next step is to understand how and why they are present in different concentrations for sperm with differing quality.”
At which point it’s simply a matter of making an MRS machine (now about the size of a person) small enough and cheap enough for clinicians to use. “We’re talking million dollar magnets,” says Turek. “So it would only be used in certain centers. Unless it can be miniaturized.” But he recalls that the software inside iPhones started off in enormous computers that once took up entire rooms. “Technology limitation,” he says. “It’s the jewel and it’s the bane of things.”