Men could soon be able to check their sperm count in the comfort of their own homes, as scientists have developed a 'lab-on-a-chip' able to test levels in seconds.
Researchers at the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands, developed the 10-centimeter-long device to overcome some of the problems with the current 'gold standard' counting method. At the moment, samples have to be taken to a lab technician who laboriously calculates sperm concentration under a microscope. This can be difficult and time consuming. It has to be done within an hour three times to get a reliable result, which means most men have to produce it in a sterile hospital room.
To use the new 'lab-on-a-chip', a known concentration of polystyrene beads is added to the sample, which is then drawn through a tiny channel in the chip. Electronic readings of the spermatozoa and beads taken by the chip are compared and the sperm count calculated. The measurement is made easier because there is no need to accurately measure the fluid flow through the chip, as done in hospitals, and the device provides the same measurement error as a manual count.
Men using the chip at home during fertility treatment wouldn't be told the exact count, but only whether or not the test went well. After a series of measurements, couples would return to hospital where a gynecologist accesses the results and advises on further steps.
However, paper co-author Loes Segerink noted that more work needed to be done before the chip could give a good statement about fertility: 'The concentration is an important parameter, but still other parameters like the motility need to be assessed as well'.
She also stressed that, while the chip would be used during hospital-run fertility treatment, it could also be adapted to produce a cheap and easy-to-use version for self-diagnosis at home. Michael Dunn, a healthcare ethics researcher at the University of Oxford, cautions against this. 'There would be the potential for harm to be caused to patients if they were not provided with the relevant information about the impact of a positive result for infertility', he says.
The development was described in the Royal Society of Chemistry's journal, Lab on a Chip.