How infertility treatment has left sperm science behind

Sperm is injected directly into an egg during IVF procedure called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection at Novum clinic in Warsaw. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel/File Photo)
Updated 11 March 2018
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How infertility treatment has left sperm science behind

LONDON: They can make test-tube babies, grow human eggs in a lab and reproduce mice from frozen testicle tissue, but when it comes to knowing how a man’s sperm can swim to, find and fertilize an egg, scientists are still floundering.
Enormous advances in treating infertility in recent decades have helped couples conceive longed-for offspring they previously would not have had.
Yet this progress has also been a work-around for a major part of the problem: Sperm counts are falling drastically worldwide — and have been doing so for decades – and scientists say their honest answer to why is: “We don’t know”.
Infertility is a significant global health problem, with specialists estimating that as many as one in six couples worldwide are affected. In more than half of those cases, experts say, the underlying problem is in the male.
Most of the focus of infertility research has been on women, however: on what can reduce their fertility and on how that can be averted, compensated for or corrected with treatment. While this approach has produced results — and babies — it has also left male infertility scientifically sidelined.
Treatments such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where the sperm is placed into the egg rather than next to it, bypass the male problem rather than treating it, said Richard Sharpe, professor at the University of Edinburgh’s center for reproductive health.
“The treatments — some of them quite invasive — are to the female partner. So the female is having to bear the burden of the male’s sub-fertility ...(And at the same time), we have a very crude snapshot of what is going on in the male.”
We know that sperm counts are dependent on high levels of testosterone, and there is some knowledge of links between sperm count and infertility, experts say. But beyond these basics, sperm’s intricacies remain largely undiscovered.
“Without understanding the biology of how normal sperm work, we can’t possibly understand how they don’t work, or how to correct the problem,” Sarah Martins Da Silva, a reproductive medicine specialist at the University of Dundee told a London briefing this week.
Sperm counts in men from America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have dropped by more than 50 percent in less than 40 years, according to pooled research published last year, described by one of its authors as an “urgent wake-up call” for further investigation.

STILL IN THE 1950s
Experts say that to address the basic unanswered clinical and scientific questions in andrology — the study of male reproductive health — would require research ranging from large, ideally international, epidemiological studies to detailed lab work to decipher exactly how sperm cells function.
Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at Britain’s Sheffield University, said even at a basic level — the diagnosis of a possible male fertility problem — the science is lagging.
The techniques of sperm analysis — examining ejaculate under a microscope, counting the sperm, assessing how well they swim, and seeing what they look like — were invented in the 1950s, he said. “And we are still doing the same thing now.”
So while estimates suggest as many 1 in 20 young men now have sperm counts low enough to impair fertility, that remains educated assumption, rather than data from specific studies.
“The quality of evidence we have got in this area falls way behind that of other branches of medicine,” Pacey said.
Attracting funding for fundamental research into possible environmental impacts on sperm counts — chemical exposure, for example, or smoking, obesity, or sport and exercise — is tricky, partly because such studies need vast numbers of people, take many years and may not give clear answers.
“In the competitive world of grant funding, there is a view that male infertility is a problem solved,” Sharpe said. “We have ICSI. OK, this doesn’t fix the problem in the affected men, but it treats the ‘symptoms’, and that’s good enough.
“So from an urgency and priority perspective, it’s easy to downgrade when compared to cancer, obesity or cardiovascular disease.”
Comprehensive European or global data on funding going to male fertility research are not available, but in Britain, for example, only around 3.6 percent of the Medical Research Council Populations and Systems panel budget was provided for male infertility research from 2014 to 2017.
Pacey told Reuters he has “a filing cabinet full of failed applications over the years” and Sharpe noted that once research falls behind, future studies have less to build on.
“If you’re not producing sexy research that’s going to come up with a magic bullet, then people are not going to give you the money,” he said.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Philippa Fletcher)


Instagram unveils new video service in challenge to YouTube

Kevin Systrom, CEO and co-founder of Instagram said he hopes IGTV will emerge as a hub of creativity for relative unknowns. (AP)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Instagram unveils new video service in challenge to YouTube

  • Video will be available through Instagram or a new app called IGTV
  • Before, Facebook and Instagram have copied Snapchat — another magnet for teens and young adults

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook’s Instagram service is loosening its restraints on video in an attempt to lure younger viewers away from YouTube when they’re looking for something to watch on their smartphones.
The expansion announced Wednesday, dubbed IGTV, will increase Instagram’s video time limit from one minute to 10 minutes for most users. Accounts with large audiences will be able to go as long as an hour.
Video will be available through Instagram or a new app called IGTV. The video will eventually give Facebook more opportunities to sell advertising.
It’s the latest instance in which Instagram has ripped a page from a rival’s playbook in an effort to preserve its status as a cool place for young people to share and view content. In this case, Instagram is mimicking Google’s YouTube. Before, Facebook and Instagram have copied Snapchat — another magnet for teens and young adults.
Instagram, now nearly 8 years old, is moving further from its roots as a photo-sharing service as it dives headlong into longer-form video.
The initiative comes as parent company Facebook struggles to attract teens, while also dealing with a scandal that exposed its leaky controls for protecting users’ personal information.
Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told The Associated Press that he hopes IGTV will emerge as a hub of creativity for relative unknowns who turn into Internet sensations with fervent followings among teens and young adults.
That is what’s already happening on YouTube, which has become the world’s most popular video outlet since Google bought it for $1.76 billion nearly 12 years ago. YouTube now boasts 1.8 billion users.
Instagram, which Facebook bought for $1 billion six years ago, now has 1 billion users, up from 800 million nine months ago.
More importantly, 72 percent of US kids ranging from 13 to 17 years old use Instagram, second to YouTube at 85 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 51 percent of people in that group now use Facebook, down from 71 percent from a similar Pew survey in 2014-15.
That trend appears to be one of the reasons that Facebook is “hedging its bets” by opening Instagram to the longer-form videos typically found on YouTube, said analyst Paul Verna of the research firm eMarketer.
Besides giving Instagram another potential drawing card, longer clips are more conducive for video ads lasting from 30 seconds to one minute. Instagram doesn’t currently allow video ads, but Systrom said it eventually will. When the ads come, Instagram intends to share revenue with the videos’ creators — just as YouTube already does.
“We want to make sure they make a living because that is the only way it works in the long run,” Systrom said.
The ads also will help Facebook sustain its revenue growth. Total spending on online video ads in the US is expected to rise from nearly $18 billion this year to $27 billion in 2021, according to eMarketer.
Lele Pons, a YouTube sensation who also has amassed 25 million followers on Instagram, plans to launch a new cooking show on IGTV in hopes of increasing her audience and eventually generating more revenue. “It’s like Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” she said. “You will never know what you like better unless you try both.”
IGTV’s programming format will consist exclusively of vertical video designed to fill the entire screen of smartphones — the devices that are emerging as the main way younger people watch video. By contrast, most YouTube videos fill only a portion of the screen unless the phone is tilted horizontally.
Snapchat began featuring vertical video before Instagram, another example of its penchant for copying rivals.
But Systrom sees it differently. “This is acknowledging vertical video is the future and we want the future to come more quickly, so we built IGTV.”