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How can Modeling Sperm Improve IVF?

Administering in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments to those wishing to bear children can be described as a sensitive and complex process. Therefore, any sort of advancement in technology that will benefit this process will ease some tension surrounding the procedure, like for example, advancements in 3D imaging in order to better examine sperm cells so that fertilization decisions can be made easier.

October 19, 2020
Alisha Chunara

However, before examining the new developments in 3D imaging for sperm, it would be beneficial to understand exactly why this is an important breakthrough in the world of fertility testing.

Picture of white colored sperm cells swimming in a woman's body
If it is easier to examine the genetic composition of sperm, then this can be a boon for those conducting fertility treatments. Image courtesy of European Pharmaceutical Review.

What exactly is IVF?

The IVF process needs to be comprehended to understand why the developments in 3D imaging of sperm cells can be essential for IVF treatments, and at large, the world of artificial reproduction technologies (ART). IVF can be broken down into two similar concepts: one is the conventional method of IVF, which involves placing a female egg in a petri dish and then surrounding the female egg with a large amount of sperm cells and some encouraging medium, and then stepping back and waiting for a sperm cell to fertilize the egg. The other method, which is more commonly used, is known as intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).

IVF was invented to help solve fertility issues like the inability of sperm cells to reach the egg and fertilize it on its own, so therefore, it is essential to have complete knowledge about which genetically superior sperm cells can be relied upon to immediately fertilize an egg and help form a potential healthy baby. 

Two 3D scientific graphs of a sperm cell that describe the different parts of the cell
The minute dimensions of a sperm cell. Image courtesy of Science X

What Obstacles Needed to be Cleared?

In order to know more about different sperm cells, they must be observed in a controlled environment. However, there are certain obstacles that must be cleared in order to study sperm cells. For one thing, they are very difficult to see, since they are almost transparent under normal light microscopy. However, it is prohibited to stain the sperm cells or use fluorescent dyes in order to see them when conducting IVF treatments. This is because staining or using fluorescent dyes on sperm cells damage the cells.

Another obstacle is that the existing imaging technology has the potential to induce embryonic damage, so it cannot be used in the IVF process, so researchers have adopted the method of selecting sperm cells based on their outer appearances and motility, placing them in a dish filled with water, and observing their movements. Yet, this method does not truly replicate the environment of the female human body.

A breakthrough in 3D imaging technology may just clear these obstacles, however.

Delving into the TAU Study

The researchers conducted the study by studying sperm cells using light computed tomography (CT) technology. In a CT scan, the device conducting the scan revolves around the object of study, sends out X-rays that then generate multiple projections, and finally creates a 3D image of the object.

To study a sperm cell, which is already difficult to examine, the researchers utilized weak visible light (and not X-rays), which does not damage the cell, to record “...a hologram of the sperm cell during ultrafast movement…[which created] an accurate, highly dynamic 3D map of its contents without using cell staining. [The 3D image was created]...at very high resolution in four dimensions: three dimensions in the space at resolution of less than half a micron (one micron equals one millionth of a meter) and the exact time (motion) dimension of the second sub-millisecond”.

A needle being inserted into an red colored human egg
In order to choose sperm that is genetically high-quality for use in IVF treatments, it is necessary to examine the internal makeup of sperm cells, and not rely on their outer appearances. Image courtesy of News Medical.

This study successfully produced a detailed image of a sperm cell without using any harmful stains or radiation, which means that IVF treatments can be conducted more effectively, since it is now easier to look for and select sperm cells that are truly genetically exceptional in a harmless way.

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