Because we don’t have enough problems like illegal immigration, exploding deficits, tanking economy, yada, yada, yada…
WASHINGTON – The federal government is betting that scientists at an Ohio university can help the world understand sperm better.
Women might cheer this news.
Put away those prurient thoughts. This is about fertility and infertility, the latter of which can prompt couples to pursue expensive, uncomfortable treatments — treatments that demand more from the woman than the man — in a quest to conceive a baby. Yet to paraphrase a University of Toledo cellular biologist: It just might be the man’s fault.
“The men almost have no consequence for that, and the women have to go through all these treatments,” associate professor Tomer Avidor-Reiss said.
With government funding, Avidor-Reiss, who came to Toledo from Harvard in 2012, and a team of his graduate students hope to take sperm science from their laboratory to fertility clinics. Through better analysis and advances in technology, they might be able to help couples and their doctors better understand and treat the reasons for infertility.
The National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that promotes the progress of science, this month awarded Avidor-Reiss a $50,000 grant for the project, called the “quantitative diagnosis of sperm quality.” This follows federal grants of about $1 million over the last few years that Avidor-Reiss and assistants got for related scientific research, which led to better understanding of the molecular structure and mutations of sperm cells.
As a share of federal spending on reproductive health research, this expenditure barely registers as a blip. But it’s an area where the National Science Foundation sees promise.
Here’s why Avidor-Reiss and others have hope.
One of six to eight couples is infertile, according to medical literature and fertility clinics. Yet the causes of infertility, or the inability to achieve pregnancy, can be poorly understood, with about 20 percent of infertile couples unable to attribute it to either the man or the woman. Couples try various treatments and regimens, relying on whatever glimmer of hope or even folk remedies they can find. And many find success.
But treatment can be expensive and is seldom covered by insurance. Treatment also tends to focus on the woman and her eggs rather than the man, Avidor-Reiss says, because too little has been known about the man and his sperm cells.
That’s changing – to a point. Fertility clinics and scientists know a number of issues may underlie a man’s infertility. The problem could be sperm density, volume, the sperm’s power to move to the egg, or its shape.
Yet some variables are still poorly understood. Advances are being made, however, by scientists such as Avidor-Reiss and his graduate students into the study of the sperm’s cellular structure, at a level made possible by computer-powered lab equipment. (The research was first conducted with fruit flies, whose DNA is suitable for this kind of study.) As a result, an old assumption — that low sperm count is to blame for infertility in some cases — may not hold true. A 5 percent volume may even be sufficient, Avidor-Reiss said in a telephone interview.
“What we have discovered in the past 20 years is that the sperm is more than just a bag for the DNA,” he sad.
The challenge is to take the newest knowledge and harness it into a reliable male-fertility test. Right now, “everybody is doing the same test,” Avidor-Reiss said. “The problem with this test is there is no predictive power.”
This is where the National Science Foundation grant, and a man named Noman Rapino, come in.
Avidor-Reiss’s latest grant is from the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps division. I-Corps stands for Innovation Corps. The foundation describes it on its website:
“While knowledge gained from NSF-supported basic research frequently advances a particular field of science or engineering, some results also show immediate potential for broader applicability and impact in the commercial world. Such results may be translated through I-Corps into technologies with near-term benefits for the economy and society.”
I-Corps grants pair researchers who have promising scientific results with experienced entrepreneurs and business mentors. Norman Rapino is the mentor in this particular relationship. Rapino, who holds a master’s degree in business and a doctorate in chemistry, is executive director of the University of Toledo’s Center for Innovation, working to help the university’s best research find a home in the commercial world.
Rapino is realistic.
“Statistically, things have a hard time making the transition from the lab to the real world,” he said. But he added, “I think the underlying science is strong. Making it into the market is a journey. And he’s into that journey now.”
So what will the end product be? A machine? A testing protocol?
It’s too early to even say, Rapino said. Avidor-Reiss has been working on the science, and “he has identified places where this can have an impact,” said Rapino. “He has a sense of where it can be used, and the I-Corps project focuses on where that particular market is.”
Once that is better established, the project can turn to how best to deliver a product, a test kit or a set of procedures.
Helping humans — and livestock
For now, Avidor-Reiss describes the product as a technology — one to improve diagnosis and better predict success in reproduction.
Human fertility labs could clearly benefit, but so could farms that breed livestock through artificial insemination. The technology could provide a diagnostic tool to assess agricultural productivity, and sperm banks could use it to predict the quality of the sperm they sell, says an abstract of the scientist’s grant award.
This may still be a long shot. Dr. James Goldfarb, chief of the reproductive endocrinology and infertility division at University Hospitals of Cleveland, said he doesn’t know Avidor-Reiss’s work but has seen promising tests come and go.
But there’s merit to what the Toledo biologist is doing, Goldfarb said, acknowledging a need for better data on male infertility. Avidor-Reiss’s work, he said, sounds like “a noble undertaking.”
“We’d love to see it succeed, that’s for sure,” Goldfarb said.