New Sperm Sorting Research Could Improve Infertility Treatment

Brigham and Women's developed a way to tell which sperm is most likely to produce a baby.


Pregnancy photo via Shutterstock

With nearly 70 million couples worldwide experiencing infertility, in vitro fertilization is rapidly becoming a relied upon resource for those looking to start a family. And as a way to streamline the process and make it more effective, Brigham and Women’s Hospital has developed a method by which sperm can be sorted so that only the most likely to produce a baby is used.

All sperm are not created equal. The survival of the fittest principle comes into play, meaning sperm with the best stamina and motility are the most likely to conceive a child. To make it easier to pinpoint and harness those sperm, Brigham and Women’s constructed what’s called a “space-constrained microfluidic sorting chip.” Since that phrase likely isn’t in your everyday vocabulary, what it boils down to is this: The Brigham and Women’s researchers, who published their findings in the journal Small developed a structure that mimics that channels in the female body sperm must swim through to fertilize an egg. A report from Brigham and Women’s explains the process:

“These bioinspired microfluidic devices create tiny corridors for cells at the size scale comparable to their own allowing them to interact with their surroundings and each other,” said Utkan Demirci, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and health sciences and technology at Harvard University Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, principal investigator for BWH Bio-Acoustic Mems in Medicine Laboratory, senior study author. “This enables applications, such as cell sorting, by controlling their microenvironment.”

The researchers then tested both mouse and human sperm in the structure to measure how the sperm traveled through the channels and how long their endurance was, with the goal of determining which sperm cells would be most likely to succeed in a human couple. The report says:

“These inexpensive devices sort sperm without any sample handling,” said Demirci. “This has the potential to lead to unique and simple strategies for home-based sperm testing especially if we are able to integrate this with existing technologies such as cellular phones and cameras.”

Though the idea of sperm sorting certainly isn’t sexy, we think in vitro fertilization, a process that is so often emotionally, financially, and physically draining, is something that deserves more research like this, especially as it becomes more and more mainstream.