Healthy Sperm? There's An App For That!

A smartphone app that takes a picture of your sperm and measures its potency? Is it an example of social media taken a bit too far, or a genuinely useful tool?

More than 45 million couples battle with infertility worldwide. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 20 percent of the problems are with the men exclusively, and 40 percent involve male infertility alongside female infertility. So whatever help men can get in this area is sorely needed and long overdue.

Developed by scientists at Harvard Medical School, the newest at-home sperm test kit makes use of a smartphone app with a 3-D–printed optical attachment to record a video of sperm cells in a sample. Algorithms in the app then analyze the video, count the sperm and assess their movement.

The brick-like magnifying optical attachment takes the semen sample into a disposable microchip device that resembles a flattened eyedropper. The app records one second of sperm motility, but that's all it needs to make a sperm quality assessment that has proven to be north of 97 percent accurate. The kits costs about five dollars to make, and require no internet access to work. The current competition in the sperm-evaluation device market is either more expensive or less accurate.

An at-home kit for men is especially important as men are often embarrassed to discuss fertility problems with their doctor. Clinical fertility tests for men require the patient to produce a semen sample in a lab, which can be uncomfortable and costly for both the patient and the clinic.

An app-based kit can also play a part in improving public health, as there is currently no national database for tracking infertility across the population. Current tests rely on either expensive equipment for computer-assisted analysis or, in hospitals that cannot afford thousands of dollars’ worth of machinery, a technician who analyzes sperm cells under a microscope.

Next steps? Scientists have begun to understand that low number or poor motility are not the only problems sperm can have that will contribute to fertility problems. Morphology – the shape of the sperm – also factors into the swimmer's potency, but there is currently no algorithm that can accurately tell the difference between the slackers and the achievers in this category.

The study has been published in Science Translational Medicine.