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Study: Biomarker in Sperm May Help Predict Odds of Pregnancy

sperm sample
Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Men with increased levels of a newly-identified biomarker in their semen have a lower probability of getting their partners pregnant.
  • Research findings could help improve pregnancy planning and treatment interventions for couples struggling with infertility.

A new research study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) has discovered a sperm biomarker that can help couples predict their chances of getting pregnant. 

The single-measure biomarker measures the level of mtDNAcn, an inherited mitochondrial DNA genetic code, in semen. Elevated levels of this marker have been linked to decreased semen quality and lower odds of fertilization.

This new study found that in 384 semen samples taken from couples whose pregnancy progress was followed for 16 months, 50% had lower odds of pregnancy during a given monthly reproductive cycle, and 18% lower probability of pregnancy within 12 months.

“It is really the first step in finding better biomarkers for male infertility and to help influence reproductive success,” Richard Pilsner, PhD, senior corresponding author of the research study and associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass, tells Verywell. 

Traditionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when a semen evaluation is performed, it is analyzed for shape, concentration, and mobility to help determine cause of infertility in men. The discovery of this new biomarker, and its predictability factors, has the potential to become a new tool in infertility diagnostics not only in men seeking advice, testing and treatment, but for those in the general population as well.

Approximately 1 in 8 couples in the U.S. have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.

How This Breakthrough Could Help Couples

Even though the current assessment of semen samples does a poor job of predicting pregnancy and reproductive success, the study reports that this is currently the most prevalent method for analyzing male infertility. This new biomarker give a more accurate assessment, helping couples develop a more comprehensive reproductive plan with their doctors.

 “The research is still in early research phase, but this could be an exciting diagnostic tool,” Michael Eisenberg, MD, associate professor of urology at the Stanford University Medical Center, tells Verywell. “We hope to have better diagnostics tests in the future.”

What This Means For You

While more research is needed, a more thorough assessment of semen may give doctors a better look into male infertility. Lifestyle modifications may help be able to offset infertility.

Next Steps in Research

Pilsner reported that his team has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue his research of how this biomarker can play a role in the future of infertility treatment.

“We received a grant to address the cause of high levels of the biomarker, whether it is environmental, nutritional, or some other factor, we need to find what its determinants are," Pilsner says. “We are hoping it is something that is modifiable like the environment, exercise, nutrition, or the elimination of toxins. But if it is genetic, then we are stuck, because you can’t change someone’s genetics.”

Causes of Male Infertility

Infertility is a common problem for both men and women, and is defined as not being able to conceive after 12 months of unprotected sex. The National Infertility Association reports that in male/female couples struggling with infertility, a third of cases are because of the female, a third of the cases are because of the male, and the other third is a combination in both partners or unexplained.

Many factors can play a role in male infertility, including environment, nutrition, exercise, disruption of testicular or ejaculatory function, hormonal disorders, and genetic disorders. The CDC lists a number of risk factors that increase the chances of male infertility:

  • Age—Being over 40 can reduce a couples chance of conceiving
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol and marijuana abuse
  • Testosterone medication or injections
  • Exposure to radiation
  • History of STDs
  • Testicular exposure to high temperatures including a sauna or hot tub
  • Exposure to certain medications including flutamide, cyproterone, bicalutamide, spironolactone, ketoconazole, or cimetidine
  • Exposure to environmental toxins including pesticides, lead, cadmium, or mercury

Treatment of Male Infertility

Medical advances in reproductive science and infertility have given many families several treatment options that wouldn’t have been imaginable 20 years ago. The CDC reports that treatment possibilities can be discussed with a urologist or reproductive endocrinologist, and could consist of one or more of the following:

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  1. Rosati AJ, Whitcomb NW, Brandon N, Louis GMB, Mumford SL, Schisterman EF, et al. Sperm mitochondrial DNA biomarkers and couple fecundity. Human Reproduction. deaa19. doi:10.1093/humrep/deaa191

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infertility FAQs. Updated January 16, 2019.

  3. National Infertility Association. Fast facts.