Sperm added to egg in vitro

‘Obstacle course’ to identify healthiest sperm created to help with IVF

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Researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Stanford University have developed a device which sorts sperm, identifying the fastest and healthiest sperm, in order to improve couples’ chances of succeeding with in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

The hope is that women undergoing IVF could become pregnant with fewer costly treatment cycles.

Standard sperm-sorting methods used in IVF aim to select the sperm which swim the fastest. The new device allows clinicians to select not just the fastest but also the healthiest sperm, reducing the possibility of selecting abnormal sperm, such as those with bent ‘necks’.

“We not only get sperm with excellent mobility, but also with normal morphology and better DNA integrity, helping families worldwide by reducing the stress of multiple IVF procedures, while potentially increasing pregnancy rates,” said Professor Erkan Tüzel of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “This could increase patients’ chances of getting pregnant.”

The concept for the device arose from the research of Tüzel, a physicist, who creates computational models of microscopic swimming organisms. A team of researchers at Stanford University led by radiologist Professor Utkan Demirci, created the device itself based on these computational models.

Close up of SPARTAN sperm selecting device

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

Image credit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

The device has been named the Simple Periodic Array for Trapping and Isolation (Spartan). It is just millimetres in size and comprises of a complex environment of three-dimensional posts in a fluid. These form an ‘obstacle course’ for sperm cells.

The Spartan is intended for use in fertility clinics and does not require sperm to be frozen.

As the sperm cells swim through the device, the fastest and healthiest sperm reach the outlet first; these are selected to fertilise the egg cells extracted from the women. This method prevents damage to sperm that can occur with standard sperm-sorting methods, such as with freezing or high-force centrifuges.

“Our success was the result of our close collaboration, bringing theory and experiment together,” said Tüzel. “And as a physicist, this is very exciting. We’re going to have a product in the market helping people. That doesn’t always happen in physics in such a short time frame, especially if you are a theoretical physicist.”

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