Couples who undergo fertility treatments know all too well how many tests and steps they need to go through to understand the cause of their infertility and find a treatment. But a new development might make some actions easier. Experts at the Columbia University Fertility Center have designed a sperm collection kit that allows men to provide samples in the comfort of their home.
“Historically for collecting sperm, men had to come into the fertility center. They go into a small sperm collection room, give a sample into a cup,” Dr. Zev Williams, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told TODAY. “It’s a pretty awkward, uncomfortable part of the process.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors were wondering how they could continue fertility treatments while keeping patients safe and they re-examined the sperm collection process. While some kits exist, they can be expensive. A cheaper alternative is using a sterile urine collection cup, but that also comes with its own problems.
“The sperm don’t do so well even in the short-term because of the temperature change and the pH issues,” Williams explained. “When we were looking at it we said, ‘Well, can we design and develop something?’”
The resulting design includes a collection cup with media to preserve the sperm encased in a foam container. The container holds the sample at an angle and keeps it at the proper temperature.
“One of the issues is that an abrupt temperature change seems to be very harmful to sperm,” Williams said. “We said, ‘Well, let’s work with the cup that exists but surround it by building a custom foam container that completely insulates that cup and surrounds it on all sides.’”
The container also holds the cup at a 45-degree angle.
“That allows the sample itself to pool in the corner and reduces the surface area and reduces evaporation,” he said. “The last part was that you have to use a media, a little liquid that you add to the sperm sample to help buffer it.”
What resulted was a kit with all the components at a much lower price.
“We were able to get all the advantages of the more expensive elements and actually even insulate and protect the sample,” Williams said.
While being able to provide the collection kits at a lower cost is important, Williams also believes that the kit might reduce the anxiety that arises when providing a sperm sample at a clinic.
“We’ve noticed that has been a big barrier,” Williams said. “There’s so much stress naturally that’s part of the fertility journey that couples experience and for the man, that often also makes it more difficult to produce a sperm sample.”
Frequently the timing of the sample is important and feeling the pressure of needing to produce a sample in a clinic makes it tougher.
“You could imagine for the man when his partner is going through a retrieval and this is a specific date, a specific time when he needs to produce a sample and then he has to go to a clinic that creates a sense of anxiety,” Williams said. “You’re going into a clinical site you lose that sense of privacy … it exacerbates the problem. We’re always looking at ways to make the fertility treatment and the journey less stressful.”
The kit is still in the piloting phase and should be available to clients at the center soon. So far men have responded well to it.
“It’s just such a shift especially for patients who’ve been through cycles before,” Williams said. “To now have the opportunity to produce a sample with the privacy and comfort at home is such a shift in terms of the process. And hopefully it will make the partners who may be reluctant, less hesitant.”
Williams said that the Columbia University Fertility Clinic hopes to offer this more affordable kit to other clinics who might need it.
“One of the goals that we have is to remove as many barriers as we can to make treatment as easy as possible,” he said. “One of the important parts of the fertility workup is to do a semen analysis and historically that’s required the man to schedule an appointment and is limited availability … We took a big initiative to streamline that whole process.”
About a third of infertility is what’s considered male factor infertility yet there’s often an impression that only women face infertility. There's still a stigma surrounding male infertility.
“There’s been a great hesitancy to discuss the male side of (infertility). Men often feel that if there is a sperm factor infertility it somehow negatively reflects them as a man, which is clearly not the case,” Williams said. “The good thing is that in the vast vast majority of these cases, it’s very correctable. So that’s the reassuring part of it.”