The latest developments in fertility research were discussed at the British Andrology Society's annual conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 19 November. Conference organiser, Professor Sheena Lewis from Queens University, Belfast, also highlighted the lack of funding going into fertility research in the UK. 'Research councils or charities across the UK spend less than one per cent of their income on reproductive research compared with nine per cent on cardiovascular and 27 per cent on cancer studies,' she said.
She went on to say that 'research into infertility has not been deemed strategic to health services or governments over the past three decades and so had been dogged by lack of funding,' adding: 'Male infertility is now a public health issue. Infertility affects one in six couples around Europe and the male partner is responsible for 40 per cent of these problems.' She explained that DNA damage to sperm is a major cause of male infertility. Sperm DNA can be damaged by lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol, drugs and obesity. 'We are trying to develop diagnostic tests to give couples more information about the causes of their infertility and how to improve their chances of a successful conception,' she said, adding: 'We need to do this through multi-centred trials and this can only be done with increased government funding.'
Over the past 50 years birth rates have declined in Europe, to 1.5 births per woman. In order to maintain population replacement, 2.1 children per couple is necessary. Last year the European Parliament acknowledged for the first time that falling fertility rates were a major cause of demographic decline. There are many possible reasons for the fall in the birth rate and some researchers think it's likely that an increase in infertility is having an effect. A part of the solution to falling birth rates is through assisted reproductive technology (ART), but Professor Lewis says that for this to be successful much more research, including prognostic sperm tests, need to be carried out. 'Stemming the tide with ART techniques including IVF and ICSI - where one sperm is injected into an egg - will make a significant contribution to tackling the falling birth rates,' she said.