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Scientists are now using the compounds to develop a new gel they hope will increase the chance of couples conceiving naturally without the need for expensive treatments such as IVF.
Male fertility has been largely overlooked until recently with most treatments requiring women to take medication or undergo expensive and invasive procedures. Up to half of the problems suffered by couples trying to conceive, however, are due to the man's fertility.
Now research into a key aspect of male fertility - how sperm cells swim - has enabled scientists at the University of Birmingham to identify potential new treatments that can "supercharge" men's reproductive cells. The scientists have discovered chemical compounds that increase the swimming ability of sperm cells and they believe this can help to boost the number of cells capable of reaching a woman's egg.
They are now using the compounds to develop a new gel they hope will increase the chance of couples conceiving naturally without the need for expensive treatments such as IVF. Their research could also help doctors to select healthier cells for use in assisted conception like IVF and intrauterine insemination.
Dr Jackson Kirkman-Brown, a senior lecturer in reproductive biology at the University of Birmingham and director of the Centre for Human Reproductive Science in Birmingham, said: "Fertility treatments basically involve helping sperm to reach the egg.
"The majority of these involve doing something quite invasive to the woman, often even though she may be perfectly healthy. "If you can give the man's sperm a little more va-va-voom, you could help fertility in a far less invasive way and it would be far cheaper. "We now have some compounds, that are in the early stages of testing, which can make more sperm will swim through cervical mucus, which means you would get more sperm into the uterus. This should increase natural fertility."
Approximately one in six couples have difficulty conceiving and around 3.5 million people are thought to be affected in the UK. Although the majority do eventually conceive naturally, around 50,000 couples undergo fertility treatment each year. Current fertility treatments such as IVF cost thousands of pounds while requiring the woman to take powerful medication and undergo invasive procedures to extract and implant eggs.
Yet only a third of all fertility problems suffered by couples are due to women - the rest lie with the male partner or an unknown cause. There have also been some recent concerns that male infertility is increasing as studies have shown that up to a quarter of young men have poor quality semen.
Dr Kirkman-Brown and his colleagues have now extensively studied what influences the motility, or movement, of sperm cells. They have found that the most successful cells move in a specific way where they flick their tails in a whip-like motion. This motion is thought to be controlled by spikes and dips in the levels of calcium inside the cells.
They are now applying for a patent for a number of molecules that can help increase this whip-like motion with the intention of incorporating them into a gel that can be used by couples during sex to increase their chance of conceiving. The compounds have proved successful in the laboratory but have yet to be used in any kind of clinical trial.
Other recent findings by the team have revealed that sperm cells crawl rather than swim towards the uterus, which may help to doctors select the most successful cells for use in more traditional fertility treatments. Dr Kirkman-Brown said: "Sperm have to make their way through quite a difficult environment. On that scale it would be equivalent to us trying to swim through cold syrup or butter.
"Only a small number of sperm have the correct properties or ability to swim through that environment and we have found that those that can do that, swim very efficiently, with a distinct way of crawling along the walls. "If you can give them something that makes them swim better, then you can give nature a helping hand. What the compounds we are developing do is effectively switch more sperm into the right kind of motility to get through this environment. "We are still in the early stages and but it is showing a lot of promise."
Dr Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield and chairman of the British Fertility Society, said that male fertility has made little progress in the past and so has often been overlooked as a source of new treatments. He said: "Men get a bad deal when it comes to infertility treatments. Faced with a diagnosis that their sperm quality is poor, there is sadly very little that men can do to reverse the situation.
"Years of research has failed to come up with anything to help them, so there is nothing proven that can be offered to them. In spite of this we should not give up searching for something. "It vital to carry out the necessary basic research to understand the problem, but unfortunately all too often this area is not considered a high priority for funding alongside issues such as cancer research. "Any new compound, however, would need to be shown to be effective through a proper randomised controlled trial."
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