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Possible Solution Emerges for Young Men Facing Infertility

Experimental Procedure Might Be Able to Preserve Reproductive Tissue

September 13, 2019

Certain medical treatments, cancers, and other health disorders can result in a boy or young man becoming infertile. While banking sperm is an option for post-pubescent patients, for boys who have yet to go through puberty and young men who are too sick to produce a sperm sample, there is little hope of preserving fertility for later use. 

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are trying to change that. Currently, 189 male patients from various academic medical centers have submitted testicular tissue to be cryopreserved at one of the University’s facilities. 

Continue reading to learn more about: 

  • Male infertility in adolescents and young adults
  • The experimental procedure taking place at the University of Pittsburgh

Infertility at a Young Age

Like women, men have better reproduction rates when they’re younger—sperm quality decreases with age. Though uncommon, it is possible for males to become infertile at a young age. 

These are some common signs of infertility

  • Differences in sex drive
  • Pain or swelling in one or both testicles
  • Difficulty maintaining an erection
  • Inability to ejaculate
  • Firm and/or proportionally small testicles 
Young man stands in the middle of road
It’s important for men to get tested for infertility. Doctors use a physical exam followed by a semen analysis in order to test sperm and uncover any possible internal issues. 

There are many factors that can contribute to infertility in men. Some are physical issues resulting in the absence of sperm in semen, while others affect sperm production or the quality of the sperm itself. 

Chemotherapy, hormone therapies, radiation therapy, and some antibiotics can increase the risk of male infertility. Additionally, cancer in the testicles, prostate, or bladder, as well as surgeries to treat these cancers, can cause infertility. According to ScienceDaily, “An estimated 2,000 U.S. boys and young men each year receive treatments or have cancers or blood disorders that place them at risk for infertility.” 

Boy in hospital waiting room
Sometimes, depending on the cause, male infertility can be treated through surgery, medication, hormone treatment, or assisted reproductive technology. 

Other reasons behind male infertility include:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea
  • Testicular blockages, birth defects, or physical damage
  • Retrograde ejaculation
  • Genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and chromosomal disorders
  • Problems with the autoimmune system
  • Varicoceles (enlarged varicose veins in the scrotum that interfere with blood flow) 
  • Too much exercise
  • Stress
  • Obesity
  • Drug-use
  • Toxins and environmental hazards (radiation, lead, radioactive materials, etc.)
  • Concentrated heat or too-tight clothing 

Possible New Preservation Technique 

Prior research has indicated that testicular tissue biopsies contain sperm cells, which are what ScienceDaily calls “blank slate cells,” causing scientists to believe that sperm can be generated from the biopsied tissue. 

From January 2011 to November 2018, medical centers in the US and Israel collected tissue samples from patients and sent them to be stored at processing facilities, the highest-collecting of which is at the University of Pittsburgh. The storage facilities cryopreserve the tissue by storing it in liquid nitrogen at a temperature close to absolute zero. 

This was the inclusion and exclusion criteria listed in the study’s report, which was published in the journal Human Reproduction. Image courtesy of Oxford Academic

Michael Hseih, Ph.D., who is the director of urology at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., another processing facility participating in the experiment, says, "This study is unique in that there is definitely a potential direct patient benefit.” 

The patients, ranging from the ages 5 months to 35 years, assigned 25 percent of the tissue to be used in the study and the other 75 percent to be stored for future use. 

"One of the reasons the study is compelling is that it presents a message of hope to the families,” Dr. Hseih continues. “It's a message of survivorship: We're optimistic we can help your child get through this and think about long-term issues, like having their own families."

A Hopeful New Frontier

So far, 137 tissue samples have been analyzed for the presence of reproductive cells and 132 have tested positive. 

Using the data collected for the study, the researchers will be able to do more investigation into cell- and tissue-based therapies and the prospect of sperm generation from testicular tissue. Successful findings would mean benefits for both participants from study as well as sufferers of male infertility everywhere.


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