BioNews reporting from ESHRE conference, Berlin:
A chemical that occurs naturally in the leaves of an African plant could help couples conceive, UK scientists say. The research, carried out at King's College London, shows that chemicals released into the blood after chewing khat leaves may improve the ability of sperm to fertilise an egg. The same chemicals could also help keep the sperm 'switched on' and ready for fertilisation for longer than usual, according to team member Lynn Fraser. The study suggests that treatments based on the chemical cathinone, the active ingredient of khat, could help couples trying to conceive, especially if the man and woman both take it.
Many people living in East Africa, where the khat plant grows, chew its leaves to produce feelings of euphoria. There is also a long-held belief that chewing khat can improve a man's sex drive and ability to maintain an erection. But until now, there have been no scientific studies on the effect of khat on the male reproductive system.
The King's College team studied the effects of chemicals derived from cathinone on human and mouse sperm. They found that these chemicals, called phenylpropanolamines (PPAs), trigger the final stage of sperm maturation, when sperm develop the ability to fertilise an egg. And as well as helping prepare the sperm for fertilisation, it seems that PPAs can also keep the sperm in a state of readiness for longer.
Fraser says that the concentrations of PPAs used in the experiments are similar to those found in the blood after chewing khat leaves, and which are still present up to 80 hours later. This raises the possibility that PPA-based treatments, perhaps in tablet form, could soon be available to couples who want to boost their fertility during attempts to conceive, and also as an aid to couples undergoing IVF. 'We could give it to men to improve sperm production, and to women because it is in the female reproductive tract that the sperm go through this process to become fertile', she said.