Walk through the family-planning aisle of any pharmacy, and you’ll find a preponderance of options for a woman seeking to sort out her fertility status.
From ovulation kits to pregnancy tests, the available offerings are a blunt representation of the skewed focus of fertility treatments, says Hadi Shafiee, a scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School.
Although men and women experience infertility in equal measure, the issue often goes undiagnosed in men due to stigma, cost, and the lack of available lab testing. “It’s mostly women that carry the weight of infertility,” he said.
But Shafiee is hoping to upend that reality with a new, smartphone-based test that can assess male fertility just as easily as an at-home pregnancy test. In a paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday, he and several researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found that when reviewing 350 semen samples, their diagnostic test could measure the concentration and motility of sperm with 98 percent accuracy. Their goal: create a consumer product that men can use to test their virility at home.
“Right now there’s really nothing on the market that you can buy over-the-counter that gives us as much detail as this type of test,” said Charles Bormann, the IVF lab director at Mass. General, and a co-author of the study. The researchers hope that, pending FDA approval, the kits could be on drugstore shelves in about two years and cost about $50.
The sperm-testing kit consists of a small plastic device with an LED light and lenses that can be attached to a smartphone to help magnify the phone’s camera. After collecting his semen, the user would use an eye dropper-like vial to draw up a tiny amount of the sample onto a disposable microchip, much like a microscope slide. The chip is then inserted into the device, and positioned under the phone’s camera lens. An app records a short video of the semen sample and analyzes how many sperm are visible and how fast they’re moving, providing a baseline reading of sperm health.
Co-author John Petrozza, the chief of the Reproductive Medicine andIVF division at Mass. General, says the kit could provide a simple, cost-effective solution to the problem he and his colleagues commonly face: A hesitancy on the part of men to admit they might be infertile, coupled with the taboo involved with undergoing fertility testing.
“They know they’re going to have to do a sperm test and masturbate in a cup in a tiny room somewhere in the clinic,” he said. “It gives them the heebie-jeebies, which means that sometimes it’s one of the last tests that we end up getting.”
The research team funded its efforts through a $10,000 Innovation Hub grant from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Petrozza anticipates that as designed, the tests could help customers identify a possible problem and prompt them to make an appointment sooner. He also could foresee a day when the device could be synched to the cloud, allowing doctors to monitor patients’ fertility remotely.
The smartphone-based infertility test is one of several diagnostics currently being developed, but provides an accessibility that could help test many men otherwise reluctant to seek medical advice, said Matthew Wosnitzer, a fertility specialist in the Yale-New Haven Health System who was not involved with the study. And while it doesn’t identify genetic abnormalities in sperm, being able to provide “rapid preliminary feedback of sperm concentration and motility” could be a significant way “to empower patients,” he said.
“My sense is that it will help men to get a preliminary idea of what their semen quality is,” he added, “and that might lead to further medical evaluations.”