Family Matters

Sperm on Steroids: 6 Inches Long and Raring to Fertilize

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Call them sperm on steroids, these 6-inch (15 cm) long wriggly organisms that Australian fertility specialists have magnified more than 7000x to help determine which are most likely to fertilize that lucky egg.

The concept makes sense: make teeny-tiny sperm — one sperm cell is 55 microns from head to tail, which is 25,000 times smaller than a ping-pong ball — really huge and then take a close look to see which look healthiest. (More on 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

Fertility experts at IVF Australia are using digital imagery to magnify the sperm to 7,300 times their normal size, which is about 18 times larger than they’ve previously been seen.

The technique is not being offered to everyone. It’s geared toward men whose sperm is DNA-damaged or abnormally shaped and whose partners have consequently had repeated miscarriages or battled infertility. (More on George W. Bush, His Mom and Her Fetus: Not So Weird After All)

Magnifying the men’s sperm to mammoth proportions helps doctors see potential defects — small holes, for example, that render them useless.

And so far, it’s transferred into higher success rates, the medical director of IVF Australia, Peter Illingworth, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Our experience has shown this technique produces more fertilized eggs, more embryos to transfer or freeze, and a significantly higher pregnancy rate than was possible before.”

The clinic tested the magnification technique on a group of couples, none of whom conceived despite 34 cycles of treatment. After the ultra-magnification and 22 more cycles, eight pregnancies resulted. (More on Want to Freeze Your Biological Clock? One Doc Says, Go for It)

Sperm problems can arise from genetics or environmental exposure. Smoking, obesity and diabetes can be contributing factors too.

Ever wonder how individual sperm are selected to fertilize a single egg? The Morning Herald explains that a sperm sample is placed on a petri dish and scrutinized beneath a microscope, then:

The sperm are then slowed in a viscous solution so their shape can be more easily assessed. A template is held over the head of each sperm on the computer screen to determine its size and shape. The best ones will fit perfectly into the template, with egg-shaped heads and no visible patches or holes. They are pushed to the sides of the dish where their tails are given a sharp smack with a pipette, to disable them. They are then ready to be injected into an egg.

In Australia, the magnification will cost just $200. No word yet on whether the practice will migrate to U.S. fertility clinics.

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