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Digital Sperm Trackers Can’t Test Male Fertility, but That Will Change

New technology out of Harvard Medical School promises to tell men more about their sperm health than ever before.

Increasing paternal age and broader concerns about decreasing male fertility have created a growing market for digital sperm-tracking devices men can use to check in on their swimmers. Once invasive sperm tests can now be conducted with a simple smartphone accessory. But there’s a catch. The current crop of sperm trackers provides men with essentially the same information available from drug store tests. Specifically, these products largely test for sperm concentration, which indicates very little about their overall sperm viability. This means that the devices, including Yo, SpermCheck, Dadi, and Trak sperm tests, are as likely to produce anxiety as they are to produce meaningful data.

“You can have a lot of sperm cells, but a lot of them can be dead or morphologically defective,” says Hadi Shafiee, a professor and principal investigator Harvard Medical School who is currently working to create a more multifaceted sperm tracker. “People are unhappy with these kinds of tests because they come up normal and then when they go to fertility centers the doctors will tell them the results are useless. That’s why we started thinking about systems for measuring motility.”

The semen analysis market is projected to reach $355.6 million by 2022, a compound annual growth rate of 8.9 percent. Introduced in 2011, SpermCheck represents one of the more basic, non-digital sperm-concentration testing options, which is similar to an at-home pregnancy test and can be purchased at a drugstore for $40. The Trak sperm testing system includes two to six at-home tests ranging from $75 to $175 and attempts to expand on this test technologically, but it only measures if sperm concentration is low, moderate, or optimal for conception. Dadi is testing a kit that allows men to mail in their samples to a lab for $99, but results still only focus on sperm count and concentration. Yo sperm tests range from $60 to $90 and promise to measure motile sperm concentration, but that is not the same thing as sperm motility.

“The concentration of motile cells is different than motility. Motility is the percentage of motile cells compared to the total number of sperm cells,” Shafiee explains.

To solve this problem Shafiee and his colleagues collaborated to create hardware and software that can test for not just sperm concentration, but sperm motility as well. A plastic phone case attaches to the smartphone and a disposable microchip plugs into it with the semen sample — effectively turning a smartphone camera into a microscope. Using a machine-learning algorithm, the app then tests sperm. So far researchers have tested the technology on 350 patients using the World Health Organization’s criteria for healthy sperm. They found they can identify negative samples with 98 percent accuracy.

Since publishing a paper about the research in the journal of Science Translational Medicine, Shafiee has discovered that they’re also able to test for sperm morphology, DNA fragmentation, and other concerning sperm viability parameters that can cause infertility, birth defects, and other problems. However, he does not anticipate that these features will be included in the at-home test.

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“For the purpose of home-based testing, sperm concentration and motility would give you important preliminary results,” Shafiee says.

As for the future, Shafiee estimates that his test could be approved by the FDA and hit the market within the next year, but it could potentially take longer. But the difficult scientific testing has been completed and they’re confident in the technology’s efficacy.

Shafiee’s goal is not to replace fertility clinics or experts, but to reduce the stigma with male fertility testing by making it easier. Roughly half of the couples seeking infertility treatment are told that men represent the limiting factory, but women have historically taken disproportionate blame for fertility issues. This is in part because men sometimes refuse to get tested. He hopes the more complex features of the app can be made available to clinics, so men can have data sent directly to their doctors for additional information about their genetic material.

At the very least, it should make providing a sample easier. Shafiee remembers how one would-be father going through the IVF process paid $350 to rent a room in the hotel across the street in order to masturbate in peace and get a good sample. The goal is to make the process easier for all men — and perhaps specifically for those for whom shame and nervousness make testing a difficult process.