• Men could soon be able to check the quality of their sperm from home (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The home-based test is be able to tell men how fertile they are by analysing a short video of their sperm.
Jessica Hamzelou

New Scientist
18 Jul 2016 - 3:57 PM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2016 - 12:24 PM

How are the little swimmers doing? Low sperm counts or poor sperm quality are to blame in around a third of cases of couples who can’t conceive. A visit to a clinic for a test can be awkward, but a new smartphone-based system lets men determine whether that’s necessary by checking their fertility in the comfort of their own home.

Men often find it embarrassing to provide a semen sample at a clinic, says Yoshitomo Kobori of the Dokkyo Medical University Koshigaya Hospital in Japan. So Kobori devised an alternative. “Everyone has a smartphone now, and they have good cameras,” he says. “I thought a smartphone microscope could be an easy way to look at problems with male fertility.”

Kobori and his colleagues at the University of Illinois in Chicago came up with a microscope containing a lens less than a millimetre thick, slotted into a plastic “jacket”. Clipped on to the camera of a smartphone, it magnifies an image by 555 times – perfect for looking at sperm cells.

To do a home test, a man would have to wait for around five minutes after ejaculation for the semen to liquefy, then apply a small amount to a plastic sheet and press it against the microscope for inspection. This can be done without getting semen on to the phone, says Kobori.

Sperm video

The camera can then take a 3-second video clip of the sperm, for uploading to a computer. When viewed enlarged on a monitor screen, it is easy for someone to count the total number of sperm and the number that are moving – key indicators of male fertility. The team is also developing a phone app to do the analysis.

Kobori says the system works as well as the software used in fertility clinics. In a test, the team ran 50 semen samples through both systems, and got almost identical results. The work was presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology meeting in Helsinki, Finland, last week.

The system can’t be used to assess the ability of sperm to fertilise an egg. “This method is only the simple version of semen analysis,” says Kobori. But that could be enough for men to identify potential fertility problems, and decide whether to seek further help from a doctor.

Stuart Lavery, a consultant at Hammersmith Hospital in London, says the device is innovative. “It might prove helpful in parts of the world that lack the resources to offer the usual microscope technology required for routine semen analysis,” he says.

The smartphone microscope is already commercially available in Japan, and Kobori hopes it will soon be on sale in other countries.

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