June 18, 2010 -- Thanks to new technology from the University of Virginia, men will have a more accurate and affordable way to test their sperm count from the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
All it takes is a few drops of semen and 10 minutes.
This test, dubbed SpermCheck Fertility, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in May and will be available online in July, and in pharmacies later in the year.
"One of the impediments to male fertility testing is that men are reluctant to go to the doctor or to deal with the whole question of their fertility," says John Herr, inventor of the test and professor of cell biology at the University of Virginia.
"This test allows the assessment of male fertility to occur in the privacy of the home. It's another step that hopefully will give men a greater chance to control and understand their reproductive functions," he says.
Though male infertility is an issue in 40 percent of infertile couples, fertility testing is still predominantly focused on women, Herr says. The hope for this product, he adds, is that it will bring more gender equity to fertility testing.
Using new technology, the test gauges with more than 95 percent accuracy whether sperm concentration is in the normal range, (above 20 million sperm per millileter), subfertile range (between 2 million and 20 million), or if the subject may be infertile (less than 2 million).
These ranges are in accordance with the World Health Organization's guidelines for male fertility.
Though the test makes it easier for men to begin investigating their fertility, it can only assess part of the problem. While sperm count is an issue in 89 percent of male infertility cases, other causes of infertility, such as sperm speed, motility and shape, cannot be measured by the test.
But if the convenience of the test prompts men to get tested who otherwise might drag their feet, it is a step in the right direction, says Dr. Lynn Westphal, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
"It doesn't replace a couple going in and having a full evaluation, but at least it gets the men started in the process -- if they use it," she says.
Fertility Testing in the Home
SpermCheck is not the first at-home fertility test for men. FertilMARQ, which was released in 2003, was the first, says Dr. John Petrozza, chief of the Vincent Reproductive Medicine and IVF at Massachusetts General Hospital.
But what sets SpermCheck apart is its accuracy and more affordable price tag.
Unlike its predecessors, it tests the concentration of a sperm-specific protein in semen -- not just the number of cells in the semen -- and is a more accurate gauge of sperm count.
It will sell for $21 to $29, while other tests run $40 to more than $100. But Petrozza says that SpermCheck may not be "a big hit." Like other at-home tests, it can measure only sperm count, not other factors affecting infertility, so many men will still need to see a specialists.
Nonetheless, it will be "interesting to see if it gets used a lot," says Westphal, "or if women will be buying it for their husbands."
Currently, "most of the initial evaluations for fertility are prompted by the woman. There's much more in the media about how fertility changes for women. I haven't seen that to be the case with men," she says.
Herr believes his product will help change that.
Herr says he created the test precisely because "there was a recognition that women were usually the first to be worked on for infertility," despite the large proportion of men who contribute to infertility in infertile couples.
"Change in technology always has to precede these kinds of changes in attitude," Herr says. "Once men have the option to take it into their own hands, then you have the evolution of the social change."
With the advent of straight-to-consumer male fertility testing, and hopefully, eventually a male contraceptive pill, Herr says "change in technology will contribute to gender equity over time."
But men still have to want to get tested, Westphal says.
Whether this test will actually encourage a shift in the way men view their role in fertility testing, only time will tell, she says.