Researchers at the University of Limerick in Ireland have designed a microfluidics-based technique that can select better quality sperm to be used in fertility treatment. Prior to natural fertilisation, sperm must swim up the female reproductive tract against a stream of mucus, ensuring only the fittest sperm reach the egg. The Limerick team's device mimics this journey, as the sperm must 'swim against an active fluid flow within micro-channels', allowing fertility clinic staff to select the highest grade sperm to use in treatment.
'Men normally produce tens of millions of sperm, yet only one is required to fertilise an egg' said Dr Sean Fair, the reproductive biologist leading the research. 'Despite the large number... very few are normal'.
The abnormal sperm are likely to have fragmented DNA and are associated with poorer reproductive outcomes: couples where the male partner's sperm has poor DNA integrity have double the risk of miscarriage.
The team partnered with fertility clinics to test the device, and showed that sperm selected using their method had significantly lower DNA fragmentation than with current methods. They are currently working on further clinical validation, and plan to seek regulatory approval soon.
Despite major advances in IVF over the last 40 years, success rates have stalled at around 20-35 percent per cycle, with each cycle costing thousands of pounds. The researchers hope that this technology will improve the odds.
The team has established a startup, neoMimix, to develop and commercialise their technology, and it was amongst the winners of the prestigious EIT Health Headstart competition 2020, which supports innovative European healthcare start-ups.