A Babymaking Breakthrough and the Bigger Picture

A diagnostic innovation that's providing hope to couples facing infertility could also have wide-ranging benefits throughout healthcare.


Infertility affects about 15% of couples globally, with almost half of these cases stemming from male factors. A groundbreaking new development from the University of Alberta has emerged with a glimpse into the factors at play.

This innovation, led by the dedicated efforts of biochemist Andrei Drabovich and his team, centers around the discovery of two unique proteins found in viable sperm. These proteins have opened avenues for a non-invasive, more effective diagnostic approach, especially important for men grappling with non-obstructive azoospermia. This condition, characterized by low production of viable sperm, often leads to surgical intervention for sperm retrieval, essential for in vitro fertilization (IVF).

The paper was published in Molecular & Cellular Proteomics.

Revolutionizing diagnosis and treatment

The discovery is not just a scientific milestone but a huge leap forward for couples struggling with infertility. It signifies the potential for a diagnostic test that could predict the likelihood of success in surgeries required for such fertility issues.

Further, these results may aid surgeons in pinpointing viable sperm during the procedure. In cases of non-obstructive azoospermia, conventional semen tests usually indicate an absence of sperm. However, with Drabovich’s methodology, it’s possible to identify a small number of spermatozoa — sometimes as few as ten in a million images. This detection is significant, as even a minimal number of viable sperm can lead to successful IVF.

“The routine semen tests typically show zero sperm in non-obstructive azoospermia, but is it really zero? With our approach we are able to record a million images and in some patients find only 10 spermatozoa. But even a few would be enough for in vitro fertilization,” said Drabovich in a university press release.

The journey to this breakthrough has been a decade in the making, beginning when Drabovich was a postdoctoral fellow. Collaborating with experts at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University of Toronto, the team employed advanced high-tech protein analysis using mass spectrometry to uncover thousands of specialized proteins within the male reproductive system. These proteins are intricately involved in various aspects of sperm functionality, including movement, cell maintenance, and the fertilization process.

The future of male reproductive health

A critical part of this research involved distinguishing cells in semen that exhibit the characteristic elongated shape of sperm, along with the newly identified proteins on both the head and tail. The group harnessed another powerful protein analysis tool using imaging flow cytometry: a sophisticated technique that not only measures each protein’s signal but also captures corresponding images. This dual approach allowed for the detection of even a single viable spermatozoon in a pool of millions.

But the implications of this research extend far beyond infertility treatment. Drabovich’s laboratory is vigorously exploring the potential functions of these spermatozoa proteins. One particularly intriguing possibility is their application in developing non-hormonal, reversible male contraception methods. Additionally, the team is delving into identifying biomarkers for aggressive forms of prostate cancer and pioneering new techniques to measure antibodies against various viruses, including COVID-19.

This research showcases how ongoing curiosity and teamwork across different fields can lead to significant breakthroughs. It not only paves the way for novel approaches in diagnosing and treating male infertility but also holds promise for broader applications in reproductive health and beyond.

In the larger context of global health and wellness, this research from the University of Alberta stands as a landmark achievement. It highlights the importance of continual investment in scientific research and the far-reaching benefits such endeavours can have.

As we look to the future, the potential applications of these findings in various aspects of health care and disease prevention are immense, offering a new horizon of possibilities in reproductive medicine. For couples facing the challenges of infertility, this breakthrough offers not just a solution but a testament to the power of hope and human ingenuity in overcoming life’s hurdles.

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Adam is a passionate advocate for women's and infants' health. With a Master of Science and a current Ph.D. from the University of Toronto's Department of Physiology, he has dedicated his academic and professional career to understanding and improving health outcomes for women and newborns. Adam's research is driven by a deep commitment to empowering women through education and by promoting the incredible advances in women's health care. As a proud Canadian, he is eager to shine a light on the contributions and progress made in his home country, aiming to inspire and contribute to a healthier future for all women and their families.