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We're Not Sure How We Feel About Testing Sperm With Your Phone

Photograph by Twenty20

Tens of millions of couples around the world struggle with infertility, and treatments come in lots of forms and strategies. First steps tend to be tests to identify just what isn't working properly. Often, those tests are only performed on women.

Yet for about 40 percent of all infertility cases, male fertility is the problem. And, in a quarter of all couples struggling to conceive, the man's fertility health isn't even considered.

There's a lot of stigma and cultural issues surrounding a man's inability to get his partner pregnant, and testing for sperm health has been expensive and awkward. Collecting sperm is the stuff of Hollywood movies—men forced into a lab closet to look at porn and ejaculate into a cup so the sample can be examined under a microscope and test results can arrive weeks later.

But an innovative team in Boston has developed an incredibly inexpensive and much more private way for men to test sperm samples using (what else?) their smartphones. Last week, leader developer Manoj Kumar Kanakasabapathy and his team published preliminary results of their app in the journal Scientific Translational Medicine.

It's not the first application of its kind to run tests on sperm. But what makes this stand apart is that, in addition to verifying sperm count, the system can also test the activity level of the cells and how well they move. Also, compared to traditional testing methods, this new one identifies abornal semen samples with 98 percent accuracy.

Here's how it works: A semen sample is placed on a disposable microchip, which is then placed inside a special optical attachment that is connected to the phone. The app collects data from the semen sample (which, we know what you're thinking: No, ejaculate does not touch the phone) and that information is stored on the phone and can be shared with a doctor.

The app doesn't yet have a name, but devleopers think it could be in the market within a few years. Cost alone could make this a game-changer: The optical accessory and the chip cost $4.45 to build, which is nothing compared to the thousands of dollars it costs for the standard computer-assisted platforms currently used.

The application also has uses for men who don't want to conceive. Men who have had vasectomies have to submit semen samples for several months following the procedure to make sure the vasectomy worked—requiring an appointment and the costs for an office visit. With this device and app, they could submit a sample's data from the privacy (and convenience) of their home.

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