Healthy sperm is a key component in the fertilization process of conception. Things like sperm quality and sperm count can be critical factors in natural conception as well as artificial conceptions methods like IVF. Being able to understand sperm mobility and other important factors can go a long way toward improving male fertility testing.

If you were to look at an individual sperm under a powerful microscope, you would see a so-called “Tail.” Also known as a flagellum, it is primarily tasked with providing the sperm with the ability to move through the female reproductive tract.

A new diagnostic research study has found ways to more effectively track the movement of the flagellum to improve male fertility tests. The technique was developed by researchers at the University of Birmingham in their School of Mathematics. It was performed in partnership with the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Reproductive science. The final results were published in the highly reputed Journal of Human Reproduction.

Before this particular study, little had changed in assessing sperm count and basic sperm quality diagnostics. For decades determining sperm count involved manual counting the active sperm in a collected sample under the powerful microscope. This number could then be extrapolated to give a basic range for the remaining volume of the sample.

The University of Birmingham’s researchers realized that the 21st century brings with it a staggering amount of new technology, particularly imaging technology. This includes high definition cameras, microscope imaging technology, computing, coding, connectivity. They took these sophisticated imaging technologies and applied it to the process of analyzing sperm to find new ways to address male fertility issues.

Funding for the research study was provided by the EPSRC Rapid Sperm Capture Healthcare Technologies Challenge Award as well as the National Institute for Health Research.

This included counting and improved accuracy in determining the number of sperm produced, in a given ejaculate sample. It also called for improved techniques for effectively tracking the head of the sperm cell as well as an improved understanding of what a healthy, fully motile sperm looks like.

The Sperm’s Great Journey To Fertilization

Of course, sperm is a major factor in natural conception. They are tasked with an incredibly difficult challenge, for their scale. Upon ejaculation, the sperm has to travel a distance which is several thousand times their body length, as they attempt to make their way through the female reproductive tract, in hopes of finding a viable egg to fertilize.

As they make their way, a vast percentage of the millions of sperm are whittled down to just a few hundred. Understanding the dynamic motion of the sperm’s flagellum, as well as how it consumes energy can shed new light on how to improve natural conception rates. Information gathered in the study might make it possible in the future to improve flagellar motion, rates, and behavior to increase the number of sperm that survive the journey through the female reproductive tract.

Pioneering A New Diagnostic Process

The process the researchers pioneered combined rapid, high-throughput digital images, advanced mathematics, and algorithms as well as fluid dynamics to effectively detect and track sperm in a given sample. The net result was a Free To Use software package which they called the “Flagellar Capture And Sperm Tracking” or FAST. The overarching goal was to develop a new tool to help clinical research teams worldwide in their own clinical sperm motility research.

Advanced Mathematics Could Be Applied To Other Research

The researchers from the University of Birmingham’s School of Mathematics, carefully developed FAST’s mathematical model specifically to include the factors necessary to determine the amount of energy an individual sperm cell needs to swim effectively. The new model enabled researchers to measure the minute forces which are typically very difficult to measure through modern diagnostics.

The end result is a model that can be used for measuring sperm as well as other microbial processes. For example there are several types of bacteria which use a similar form of motility to move through a fluid medium.

At the same time, other researchers from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Reproductive Science tackled the clinical aspects of the study. At this time most of the diagnostic techniques related to treating male fertility are somewhat crude, or basic. Their goal was to more accurately track and analyze sperm movement in high detail in hopes of producing the kind of insights that will lead to new treatment options.

This could help fertility specialists to develop more effective fertility treatment strategies for males as well as females. One of the challenges in IVF treatments is implanting a successfully fertilized and viable embryo into the aspiring mother’s uterus. In some of these instances, the embryo might not successful implant in the uterine lining, due to other factors.

Being able to more accurately determine sperm quality could open the door for less invasive treatment measures, that more closely resemble the natural conception process.

Finding Inexpensive Alternatives To Invasive Fertility Treatments

One of their overarching goals was to produce a diagnostic technique that could help physicians and fertility specialists to more accurately assign necessary fertility treatments. One potential treatment application could be “Washing” the sperm and injecting them directly into the female’s womb. This could be a relatively inexpensive alternative to more complicated and invasive fertility treatments like IVF or ICSI.

In these more expensive treatments, the sperm needs to be introduced to a harvested egg in a clinical setting. A resulting viable embryo then needs to be transferred to the uterine lining in hopes for successful implantation.

The Future Holds Promise For Improving Male Fertility Rates

The Flagellar Capture And Sperm Tracking system is still in its earliest days. While it isn’t fully borne its first fruit, researchers, physicians, and fertility specialists now have a new, innovative tool to shed light on sperm motion, mobility, and energy consumption. One would hope that new diagnostic research and related treatments are on the near horizon.

Source – Science Daily