Smartphones: Accurately Testing Sperm Count

- March 24, 2017

Smartphones now have the capability to accurately test for sperm count, led by a team of researchers at Harvard who work on developing new tools for patient care. According to the World Health Organization, low sperm count is one of the primary markers for male infertility, which is a globally neglected health issue.

The scientists have developed a rapid infertility diagnostic tool that attaches to a smartphone; the attachment itself is compatible with an app created to count the numbers of sperm and measure motility: markers for infertility. While the team at Harvard is not the first to develop an at-home fertility test designed for men, they are the first to successfully determine sperm concentration in addition to motility.

The process is simple: a small semen sample is loaded onto a disposable microchip, which is then placed into the cellphone attachment through a slot. The attachment turns the phone’s camera into a microscope. After the sample is loaded and the app is run—which allows users to see a video of the sample—the record button is pressed, and the app subsequently analyzes the video to identify sperm cells, and track their movements.

Scientists did a side-by-side comparison of the smartphone sperm tracker with current lab equipment, analyzing over 350 semen samples of both infertile and fertile men. The smartphone system’s identification accuracy was 98 percent. The group also assessed whether an untrained user, with no scientific background, could successfully and easily operate the app. The results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday, indicated that both untrained and trained users could operate the at-home test without difficulty.

While the cell phone attachment is engineered to work with Android devices, the team is currently creating a version compatible with iPhones. The device costs only $5 to make in the lab, and the low cost could ultimately help provide necessary infertility care—particularly in developing nations, which often lack the resources for currently available diagnostics.

While the device has been designed to test for male infertility, its creators believe it could also help men who have recently undergone a vasectomy. After the procedure, physicians urge men to have their sperm count tested, in order to tell whether the procedure was successful. Yet many men do not return to a clinic and have their samples tested.

Next steps are receiving FDA approval, starting a company, and beginning mass production of the devices, which could likely be available to customers for below 50.00 dollars. In the future, it is possible that fertility tests for men will be as easy and commonplace as at-home pregnancy tests for women.

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