Men looking to become dads will soon have a quick and easy way to check their sperm counts, from the comfort and privacy of home.
Greg Sommer and Ulrich Schaff have used technology they helped develop at Sandia National Laboratories to create a portable, battery-operated centrifuge called Trak. Using its small but powerful engine, it gives an accurate sperm count reading in minutes.
Much like diabetics who monitor their glucose levels with a glucometer, men testing their sperm count place small drops of semen onto a test strip called a prop. Each kit comes with six props and six collection cups. The sperm count is displayed on a digital read-out, similar to a thermometer.
Sommer, who along with Schaff launched Sandstone Diagnostics in 2012 to market the device, told Healthline that he hopes to have Trak on store shelves next year, pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Trak will cost about the same as ovulation monitoring devices for women, Sommer said.
“The only way to evaluate male fertility is to go to the doctor’s office,” Sommer said. “The way they’ve been doing it for 80 years is the way they do it today. Men go back there with a magazine, or some nicer places have DVDs.”
It’s not a pleasant experience, Sommer said. Everybody knows what you’re there for and you never know who you might run into. “We’re lowering barriers to healthcare,” he said. “Now, men can check their sperm count in the privacy of their home and get the care and treatment they need.”
Low Sperm Count May Point to Serious Health Problems
A low sperm count can indicate bigger problems than just the inability to conceive. It can point to serious health conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, a fertility expert at the Stanford School of Medicine.
“Some people are now of the opinion that semen quality may be a biomarker of overall health,” Eisenberg told Healthline.
Normal sperm counts range from 50 to 100 million sperm per milliliter, Eisenberg said, but can vary based on age and ethnicity. In the future, Trak may be able to count the number of sperm actually swimming, offering more detailed fertility information.
“It’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to do,” Eisenberg said of Sommer and Schaff. “It is pretty disruptive to the male fertility space in general. They are upping the standard of care by bringing it home.”
Doctors typically focus on women when couples face difficulty conceiving, Sommer said. But just as often, it's actually a problem with the male partner, or a combination of issues that the couple shares.
According to the Urology Care Foundation, fertility problems plague 10 to 15 percent of American couples trying to conceive. Up to one third of the time, the issue is male infertility.
What Can Cause Male Infertility?
Several factors can affect sperm production, the most well-known being warm temperatures. To that end, Sandstone has also developed a website called dontcookyourballs.com. While its name is blunt and the tone of the site is light, it is intended to offer men actionable information about maintaining their fertility, Sommer said.
Along with excessive heat, smoking and obesity can also cause infertility. Additional issues may be genetic or related to structural problems with a man’s reproductive organs.
The portable Trak device allows men to monitor their sperm counts at different times, which could help pinpoint what is causing their fertility problems. Men can share the information with their doctors, who may use it to determine a course of treatment.
Sandstone even has a mobile app in development to help Trak users take action to raise their sperm counts. It will include results monitoring, links to physicians, and more.
Sommer believes Trak will change the way America talks about male infertility. “What we’re seeing with men and women struggling with this problem is that it is very difficult to even communicate among themselves,” Sommer said.