A giant scanner has been successfully used to sort 'good' sperm from 'bad'.
The team at the University of Sheffield hope their technique might one day help develop diagnostic tests and treatments for male infertility.
'The fact we can detect differences in molecular composition between samples of "good" and "poor" sperm is really significant because it opens up the opportunity for us to develop a novel biomarker to help with diagnosis,' said Dr Steven Reynolds, corresponding author of the study published in Molecular Human Reproduction.
'Or it might one day allow us to design specific therapies for men with poor sperm that might help give them a boost,' he added.
Sperm samples prepared from healthy volunteers were placed into a ten-foot high magnetic resonance spectroscopy machine which worked to sort the sperm on the basis of their molecular make-up into those which were likely to be good swimmers (with high motility), and those which were not (low motility).
The technique is commonly used to scan soft body tissues as it does not affect living cells. It uses powerful magnets to create pulses, like radar, which bounce back from body tissues at different frequencies depending on their chemical compositions. These bounce-back signals can be used to create a molecular profile or image.
'The technique of magnetic resonance spectroscopy has been previously used to examine the molecular composition of many cells and tissues in other diseases such as cancer, but it has never previously been used to examine live sperm,' explained Professor Martyn Paley, one of the spermNMR study team at Sheffield. 'As such, these results are a world first.'
Professor Allan Pacey, his colleague, said: 'Most of the advanced techniques we have available to examine the molecules in sperm end up destroying them in the process by either adding stains or by breaking open their membranes to look at the contents... To potentially have a technique which can examine the molecular structure of sperm without damaging them is really exciting.'