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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019

Irish researchers discovering more and more about male infertility

Male infertility is responsible for about 50 per cent of infertility in Ireland.

Image: Sperm via Shutterstock

SCIENTISTS AT NUI Maynooth studying various aspects of male infertility, which they believe will assist in the medical world’s knowledge of the problem, have made a breakthrough in their work.

Male infertility accounts for about half of all infertility cases, usually because of deficiencies in semen, so a better understanding of the field is crucial, says lead researcher Professor Kay Ohlendieck.

Using a technology-driven approach, his team has determined the mechanisms of a particular form of sperm abnormalities called globozoospermia.

They believe that the abnormal morphology of sperm cells plays an important role in infertility.

“If we can better understand the pathology, we might eventually be able to help people with full globozoospermia,” explains Ohlendieck.

Globozoospermia is a rare but severe disorder in the male infertility bracket.

Before fertilisation, healthy sperm cells go through an activation process called the acrosome reaction. During that phase, the sperm releases enzymes and breaks down the outer-layer of the egg.

But in globozoospermia, the defective sperm are round-headed and lack the critical acrosome structure so they cannot activate properly. This means that they fail to interact with the female egg cell.

The approach has used technology-driven, rather than hypothesis-driven, research. Proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins, their structures and functions, was used to analyse the disorder.

Examining the infertile sperm cells closely, the scientists identified more than 40 proteins that were abnormally regulated.

“Traditionally research around male infertility has focused on individual proteins or biochemical pathways, but we took a technology-driven approach to studying the abnormalities in sperm,” explains Ohlendieck.

“We found that the prevention of the acrosomal reaction in sperm cells appears to prevent fertilisation and initiates a cascade of metabolic abnormalities and a cellular stress reaction in defective spermatozoa.”

Speaking to, Ohlendieck warned that “one has to be careful what one concludes from basic research”.

“It will be long time until this is translated into treatment,” he added.

Currently, there are some treatments available for partial globozoospermia but none for the complete form.

Within this study, the team found potential new therapeutic targets – for example, the energy or mobility proteins – which require further study and development.

The three-year study is a collaborative project between the Irish university, the Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of Bielefeld, Germany. It has been published in the biochemical journal Proteomics.


A normal sperm and one affected by globozoospermia.

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