Up until now, men struggling with fertility issues ran into dead ends when trying to unravel the causes that were based on biology. But a new digital roadmap developed by researchers at University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) might unlock the mysteries behind sperm development and could lead to a better understanding of infertility.
“We took a new, cutting-edge approach down to the level of individual cells to understand all the changes in which genes are used to make sperm in the testicles,” said Hermann, a biology professor and director of the UTSA Genomics Core. “That previously had not been possible and impeded progress toward a cure for male infertility.”
The researchers have developed a high-resolution genetic map showing how men produce sperm cells. According to Hermann, these findings could be a turning point for identifying what could go wrong in men who suffer from infertility.
How men produce sperm cells
Let’s do a quick, Sperm-Making 101 refresher course: Sperm cell production occurs in the testes (put two of those guys together to get “testicles”) within a network of tiny tubes called the seminiferous tubules. Hormones like testosterone trigger germ cells chilling in there to turn into sperm, which resemble tadpoles with heads and squiggly tails. Those tails help propel the new sperm into another tube, called the epididymis, where they go on a five-week journey to complete their development and move into the vas deferens.
During sexual stimulation, the mature sperm hanging out in the vas deferens join forces with seminal fluid (a whitish fluid produced by the seminal vesicles and prostate gland) to form semen. The semen—containing about 500 million sperm—is then pushed out of the penis through the urethra during ejaculation.
The Key to Unlocking Male Infertility
What’s so unique and important about the UTSA study is that for the first time, researchers were able to zero in on individual cells, rather than basing results on data collected for groups of cells. The researchers’ findings reveal detailed information about which genes are turned on or off in the stem cells that ultimately grow into sperm cells.
“This is how we find the needles in the haystack,” said Hermann. “We weren’t previously able to separate different cells with different functions, so in order to understand exactly how they are different, we looked at individual single cells, instead of the typical way of grabbing them all in bulk as a group.”
The team was able to build a comprehensive digital library of the cell types required for sperm production by examining more than 62,000 cells in mice and men (hey, that could be a catchy title!). This data could give doctors crucial insight into the development of sperm in a patient, a perspective that was lacking up until now, by comparing gene expression “signatures” between healthy and infertile men.
This is good news for couples struggling to conceive, because blame for reproduction issues can be split evenly between men and women, according to the National Institutes of Health. While many male fertility issues are treated with medication or sometimes surgery, the underlying cause for infertility remains unknown for half of the male infertility cases.
If you’re a man who has been trying to conceive with your partner for over a year unsuccessfully, you might want to begin looking into your own fertility before consulting a fertility expert, beginning with your sperm count. SpermCheck is an over-the-counter kit that lets you monitor your sperm count quickly and easily at home.
If you’re starting down that road toward parenthood and hit a fertility bump, thanks to researchers at UTSA, a map is now available that can help uncover the biology underlying how sperm are produced, and help figure out what may go wrong in men who suffer from infertility.