Smartphones can now be used to track and analyze sperm.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed an inexpensive and discreet way of screening for male infertility by creating an app that could be used with a few phone accessories.
Using the phone’s camera and a specially designed 3-D printed phone case that can magnify the sperm, the app can measure the amount of sperm in semen and how many of them are actually swimming.
“For semen analysis, measuring sperm concentration and motility are the most critical parameters that clinicians actually look for,” said Hadi Shafiee, senior author of the study and a principal investigator in the Division of Engineering in Medicine and Renal Division of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
This new technology is described in a paper published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine.
Why it matters:
The idea to develop this technology came 2 1/2 years ago after Shafiee talked to several urologists. After a vasectomy, men had to return to the hospital a couple of times after the procedure to test their semen. The urologists told Shafiee that it would be useful if patients could test their semen at home.
“Post-vasectomy compliance testing is actually very poor,” Shafiee said. Computer-assisted semen analysis is expensive and time-consuming, while manually analyzing semen is subjective, and results can be inconsistent between labs.
Apart from post-vasectomy testing, Shafiee sees numerous other applications of this technology.
Couples trying to conceive don’t need to visit a clinic and can instead use the kit at home, especially if they live in an area where infertility is stigmatized. People with smartphones in developing countries could use it if they can’t travel to a clinic or lack the resources to do so. Animal breeders could also adapt the kit to regularly test animal semen.
The phone case contains two lenses pulled from CD and DVD drives, and an LED light to illuminate the sample. The case cost $3.59 to make.
To load the sperm into the case, the researchers designed a manually operated sampler that cost them $0.86 to make. Sperm goes up a detachable tube into a disposable microchip.
The technology does not require any training to use. During the study, the researchers had trained and untrained people use the app and accessories, and they did not see any difference between the results.
Once the microchip is loaded, the Android-based app records one-second-long videos and uses each video frame to track sperm. It can deliver results in less than five seconds with over 98 percent accuracy.
The researchers compared the results of the app against those obtained through standard laboratory analysis. Out of the 350 semen samples, lab tests classified 307 of them as abnormal using standards set by the World Health Organization. The app was able to detect 303 of the abnormal samples. Samples were abnormal if they had less than 15 million sperm per milliliter and less than 40 percent of the sperm in the sample were swimming.
But keep in mind:
The app and the phone accessories won’t be available anytime soon. The researchers are still planning on doing more tests and seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Shafiee is creating a startup to get the product on the shelves, and he envisions that the entire kit would cost around $50.
The app also has its limitations. It has trouble accurately identifying sperm concentration in samples that have more than 100 million sperm per milliliter.
The app also has difficulty differentiating between sperm and debris that has a similar size to the sperm head.
What they’re saying:
“The device has many advantages: simple, fast, accurate and inexpensive,” Ashok Agarwal, director of the Clinical Andrology Laboratory and Sperm Bank at Cleveland Clinic, said in an email. “I believe that the application of this device for post-vasectomy sperm check could be a game changer.”
But he said that the biggest limitation of the technology was that it could not detect problems in sperm morphology — the size and shape of the sperm. Defects in the sperm’s head or tail could cause difficulties reaching or penetrating the egg.
“This is important because it is well-established that sperm concentration and sperm motility are less important when it comes to predicting the fertility in assisted reproductive technology,” said Agarwal, who wasn’t involved with the study.
The bottom line:
Smartphone-based methods to measure the amount of sperm and its motility could, in the future, lower the cost and stigma to regularly testing male fertility, but you shouldn’t expect to see it in the app store just yet.