By Dr. Mallika Marshall

WORCESTER (CBS) – About 15-percent of couples experience infertility in the U.S. and at least a third of cases are due to male reproductive issues. But some local researchers have developed a sperm sorting device which may help couples trying to conceive improve their chances.

When couples undergo fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryologists try to select the best sperm to use. That often involves a spinning process much like clothes in a washing machine, but those high forces can cause damage to the sperm and the DNA inside.

“The less we subject the cells to outside forces, outside effects, the healthier that we have a chance of isolating the healthy ones,” says Erkan Tuzel, PhD, an associate professor of physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

Tuzel’s team and colleagues at Stanford University have created a device called SPARTAN (Simple Periodic ARray for Trapping And IsolatioN). It’s the size of a credit card and can sort out the healthiest sperm in a simple, gentle, and efficient way. Resembling an obstacle course, the device is made up of a series of 3-dimensional columns for sperm to swim around. Only the healthiest make it to the end the fastest.

spermsorter Sperm Sorting Device Developed At WPI May Improve Fertility Treatments

An animated description of the sperm sorting device. (Image credit: Erkan Tuzel – WPI)

“[It’s] a physical maze that we have designed that essentially helps the healthy sperm to leave a flock behind, a flock of maybe unhealthy or not able to move well sperm, friends, behind,” explains Tuzel.

In recent experiments, the SPARTAN device was better able to identify sperm with the greatest ability to swim, the best shape and size and less DNA damage than traditional techniques used to sort sperm.

And it’s quicker, taking only about 10 minutes to run.

SPARTAN was not designed to replace the embryologists who decide which sperm are most worthy but simply to make their job easier, and while it’s not ready for prime time yet, Tuzel would love to see SPARTAN eventually contribute to even higher pregnancy rates.

“Our hope is that with this device and all of these improvements that we’re doing that it will really help improve infertility treatments and one day give hope to couples seeking to have children,” he told WBZ-TV.

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