Thanks to research being conducted at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital, men may soon be able to perform full fertility tests in their own homes. Led by Manoj Kanakasabapathy and Hadi Shafiee, researchers at the hospitals are developing a smartphone-based optical device that can assess sperm concentration and motility based on a single semen sample – no going off into a private room at a clinic required.

The 3D-printed device incorporates a white light LED, two aspheric lenses, a battery and other electronic components. It gets attached to the back of the user's smartphone, utilizing its camera and processor.

A disposable microfluidic chip, which incorporates a capillary tip and a rubber bulb, is used to gather a precise amount of unprocessed semen from a cup. That chip is then placed in the main device, so that the phone can shoot video of the sperm. An app guides users through the six-step process.

Within less than five seconds of observation, the system is not only able to assess the concentration of the sperm, but it also determines if they're "swimming" correctly – while there are already at-home male fertility test kits that measure the former, none can measure the latter.

The device was tested on 350 semen samples at the Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center, where it was able to measure sperm concentration and motility with an accuracy of 98 percent. Plans now call for additional tests to be performed, and FDA approval to be obtained.

Once commercialized, the final product may not be that expensive – materials costs for the prototype were just US$4.45. It will also be facing some competition, as Medical Electronic Systems is already taking preorders for its somewhat similar YO device. According to Shafiee, however, there is at least one key difference between the two.

"In addition to sperm concentration and motility, our system can measure total sperm count and total motile sperm by integrating a miniaturized weight scale into the platform," he tells us. "Total motile sperm count is a very important factor for semen analysis. Yo sperm only measures the concentration of motile sperm."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Sources: Brigham and Women's Hospital, American Association for the Advancement of Science

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