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New fertility test kit for men developed

13 June 2011
Appeared in BioNews 611

A new fertility test for men that can detect DNA damage in sperm has been developed in the UK. The test, called SpermComet, could save couples undergoing fertility treatment both time and money since it will allow clinics to fast-track patients to the most appropriate treatment, say its developers.

Panos Lioulias, chief executive of Queen's University Belfast's venture capital company QUBIS Ltd, which is involved with the test that costs around £600, said it is 'the only test available that can help clinics to tailor treatment specifically to the man’s needs'.

Traditionally fertility clinics would evaluate a man's sperm simply by looking at number, motility and shape under a microscope. The problem is these observations cannot determine exactly how healthy these sperm are. Damaged DNA in sperm may lead to trouble with conception or repeat miscarriages.

The test, developed by fertility doctor Professor Sheena Lewis at Queen's University Belfast, checks for tiny tears and breaks in the sperm's DNA. Using chemicals, the tightly coiled DNA strands of each sperm are relaxed and then separated using an electric field. Undamaged DNA will then bunch together and shine brightly while damaged DNA fans out and glows weakly. Under a microscope this looks like the head and tail of a comet, hence the test's name. By measuring the length of the tail, the scientist can assess the health of the man's sperm.

The results of the test can be used to select the most appropriate treatment. For example, the test demonstrated those with between 26 percent and 49 percent damaged DNA in their sperm had higher chances of success with IVF, whereas those with scores of more than 50 percent had a higher risk of failure. In this case alternative treatments, such as ICSI, can be provided.

'Good quality sperm DNA is closely associated with getting pregnant and having a healthy baby', said Professor Lewis. 'We have found a way to fast-track couples to the best treatment for them, to save them time and money'.

However, Dr Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, pointed out that doctors have no way of fixing DNA damage in sperm. 'Are you going to get more babies for your pounds? That's the real question', he said.

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