Anyone who's ever had to drum up the courage to visit a male fertility center will agree that today's process for sperm counting is at best awkward, and at worst embarrassing, messy and intimidating. So if you'll pardon the pun, it will come as a relief to many that a "lab on a chip" device is being developed that can let guys do their own sperm counts at home - avoiding the embarrassment and inconvenience, if not the mess. That's gonna be fun at parties. Warning: uncomfortable anecdote after the jump.
Forgive me for starting out with a personal anecdote - particularly on this kind of subject - but for purely medical reasons, I've road-tested the existing technology in sperm counting and collection. And while it's still better than your average lunch break, it's a fairly intimidating process.
You go into the sperm bank building, sign up with the registrar, then proceed to a waiting room full of other men who are here to have their sperm tested or stored. Because sperm die off when exposed to the elements, you've got to get it tested when it's fresh - and that means a session of self-romance in a sterile room at the facility. With half a dozen guys outside in the waiting room hoping you'll finish so they can get back for their 2 o'clock meeting. Awkward!
After several guys sheepishly exit, carrying their sample jars and looking a touch flushed (wow, that guy was fast), it's my turn. There's an instruction card on the wall - "pffff, I think, "I've been doing this since I was 12" - but I read it anyway, and it saves me from what could have been one of the most embarrassing moments of my young life. Step one: take the lid off the jar before you start. I resolve to religiously read instruction sheets from now on.
If you make it to the finish line (and presumably, there's plenty who don't), you take your jar out to the nurse, who quietly asks if you 'spilled any' as a weary looking cleaner who clearly made some enemies in a past life pushes her trolley into the room you've just exited. And then, somebody takes your jar of ejaculate and looks at it under a microscope, manually counting how many sperm are in a particular volume to get an estimate of the total number.
It's clearly a process that could do with a makeover - and if Dutch scientists from the University of Twente, Enschende have anything to do with it, that makeover could be just around the corner.
Loes Segerink and his research team have developed an electronic chip that takes all the embarrassment and inconvenience out of getting a sperm count - if not the mess and, ahem, manual handling.
The chip takes the semen and passes a current through it as it moves through a microchannel, measuring the impedance of the fluid as it moves through. Different cells in the sample produce different impedance spikes, and when the sample is 'doped' with a known quantity of latex beads, it becomes possible to determine what ratio of sperm cells there are to these beads.
The results are very close to what you get from a manual sperm count - an average of 97% accuracy in initial testing - meaning that reliable home fertility testing kits for men are now just around the corner.
This project is just at the research phase for now, but being as how it's a non-invasive, private and reasonably simplistic device, there's no reason not to expect it to make it to production. I can tell you, I'd greatly prefer to use one of these next time I need a sperm count - that is, unless I ever follow through with that plan to walk into the clinic with my hands bandaged up and ask for assistance...