Powerful magnets may be the key to new solutions for male infertility. Recently, scientists have discovered that magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), which is similar to MRI technology, can detect differences in sperm viability at the molecular level in live samples without killing the sperm. So far, this technique has been able to identify molecules with differing sperm concentrations that have been separated into high- and low-quality categories.
Although it will be some time before this technique has viable clinical applications, it’s extremely promising for men seeking help for infertility. MRS has been used previously to examine the molecular structure of cells in diseases such as cancer, but using it to examine live sperm is a huge step forward for families struggling with fertility barriers.
Until recently, studying sperm meant killing the samples. MRS allows researchers to study sperm while alive. What this potentially means is that researchers could reuse sperm they’ve studied and deemed appropriate infertility procedures. The non-invasive nature of MRS is precisely what makes it so useful. With this new technique, a technician could perform a semen analysis and handpick the best sperm, maximizing the odds of a successful fertility treatment. Unlike traditional examination methods, which destroy sperm, the low energy pulses used in MRS do not damage the sperm, meaning tested samples could be used in IVF treatments.
The MRS scan starts by spinning the semen sample rapidly to separate healthy, high-quality sperm from low-quality sperm and seminal fluid. This sample is hit with pulses of energy, which bounce off healthy and unhealthy sperm in different ways depending on the molecular structure. This reveals the different makeup of healthy sperm and poor-quality sperm. For example, molecules of choline (an essential nutrient), lipids (components of sperm cell membranes), and lactate vary widely between good and bad sperm samples. Understanding why these differences exist is the next step.
The goal moving forward is to create MRS machines small enough and affordable enough for fertility clinicians to use regularly. Right now, an MRS machine is about the size of a person and prohibitively expensive for most fertility centers. However, if it can be miniaturized, it could be made available to fertility treatment centers throughout the country and beyond, meaning that more effective fertility treatments would be available to more of the people who need them. Keeping in mind that the software inside iPhones was originally housed in computers that filled entire rooms, it’s not hard to see the potential for advancement in this important area.