New Insight Into Male Infertility

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So many things can go wrong when a couple is trying to conceive, it seems a miracle that babies are ever born at all. There could be a shortage of sperm, an egg may not be in the right place and fibrous growths located along the reproductive tract can prevent the two key players from ever meeting. But now it may be possible to spot at least one of these problems easily and early: a new study suggests that a simple home test may be all it takes to help men detect a protein that could be weakening their sperm.

The chemical that is the cause of so much woe is known as macrophage migration inhibitory factor or MIF, a protein found in the immune system that seems to help sperm cells grow into strong swimmers—and that's critical. Weak sperm do not survive long in the wild environment of the reproductive tract. There may be millions of the tiny cells released, but to reach the egg they must withstand the acidic environment of the vagina, fight through a thick layer of cervical mucus and then race the other sperm to penetrate the egg's protective layer. Men are responsible for almost 40% of conception problems, and MIF, researchers believe, may play a role in most of the cases. "It is all about sperm,"says chemist Yousef Al-Abed, the lead researcher of the just-released MIF paper. "They need to be in good shape to do their jobs."

In the study, which appears in the most recent issue of Molecular Medicine, Al-Abed analyzed semen samples from 68 infertile and 28 fertile males who had abstained from sex for a period of three to five days. All of the participants, the research revealed, exhibited what Al-Abed calls the Goldilocks effect: those who had abnormally high or low levels of MIF were infertile. In the ones whose levels were high, sperm were produced but quickly died; in the ones whose levels were low, sperm survived but were often malformed. Only the men whose MIF concentrations were just right produced healthy and viable sperm. The paper does not specify just how MIF has the effect it does and indeed Al-Abed concedes he doesn't yet know. But the mere fact that the protein levels are so closely associated with sperm viability makes a strong circumstantial case that there's some causation going on.

While this is a novel find, MIF itself is hardly a new discovery. Scientists isolated the protein more than 40 years ago and found that it played a role in causing the swelling and inflammation found in diseases like arthritis. Al-Abed and his team are hard at work trying to figure out if this or some other mechanism is what damages sperm, but they're already trying to make use of what they know so far. Within the two years, they hope to develop a home-testing kit that can help men measure their MIF levels if they even suspect a problem. Further down the line, it may be possible for doctors to administer MIF to men who don't produce enough, or chemically counteract it in those who produce too much. It might even be possible for the protein to serve as a form of male contraception, one that could be used as either an injection or spermicidal gel. "MIF is still not well-resolved,"Al-Abed admits. But its power to do harm—as well as good—is becoming clearer.