Motorized spermbots help weak swimmers along to boost fertility

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The team developed tiny, metal-coated polymer helices that capture sperm from behind

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There are a number of possible solutions available to those having trouble conceiving, including artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, but these treatments are far from a surefire fix. Researchers at IFW Dresden in Germany are working towards another approach they hope will provide better results by targeting a key driver of infertility, sperm that don't swim well. The team has now demonstrated sets of motorized "spermbots" that can give weaker swimmers a much needed boost to the egg.

The team at the Dresden Institute for Integrative Nanosciences (IFW Dresden) researchers caught our attention when they revealed the first iteration of their spermbots in 2014. These consisted of live sperm cells inside microscopic tubes made from titanium and iron film that could be guided by magnetic fields to their destination.

They have now returned with an updated version of the spermbot, which still relies on magnetic fields for direction, but takes on a different shape. Rather than enclosing the sperm cells in tubes, the team developed tiny, metal-coated polymer helices that capture sperm from behind, wrapping only their tails in a spinning magnetic corkscrew and driving them forward at the head.

"We have chosen magnetic helices as micromotors because of their relatively simple mechanism of motion that is widely understood and easy to control in 3D by a common setup of axial pairs of Helmholtz coils," the researchers explain in their research paper.

Testing the new technique in petri dishes using a rotating magnetic field to actuate the helical motors, the team was able to wrap it around a live sperm cell, drive it to an egg for potential fertilization and then release it.

Though they are enthused with their initial success, the researchers say that the approach still requires a lot of work before it reaches clinical trials.

The research was published in the journal Nano Letters.

You can see the spermbot in action in the video below.

View gallery - 3 images

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