A SCIENTIST who warned humans could be at risk of extinction due to declining male fertility rates is leading the race to fix the problem.
Dr Sarah Martins da Silva is leading trials at the University of Dundee on a drug made by AstraZeneca that could become a new ‘game-changing’ treatment for couples struggling to conceive.
Scotland is already leading the way in access to IVF treatment and could now also be responsible for developing the first pill to treat male infertility.
Currently, options for men are limited, with women paying the price for invasive assisted conception procedures.
Standard treatment is intracytoplasmic sperm injection, where a single sperm is injected into the center of an egg during the IVF process.
It can give a healthy baby, but does not solve the problem of male infertility, experts say.
READ MORE: Why Scotland’s ‘gold standard’ IVF treatment is the best in the UK
Scientists participated in trials using a drug that was not found to have any real benefit for the neurological disease it was aimed at treating.
Small-scale trials have found that poorly performing sperm “responds positively” to treatment.
About one in 15 men are affected by fertility issues, the majority affected by low sperm count or other issues such as poor sperm motility.
The research is being led by Dr Sarah Martins da Silva, who was named one of the BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational and Influential Women in 2019 for her work in the field.
She previously warned that the human race could be threatened with extinction if a 40-50% drop in sperm count over the past four or five decades continues.
“As it stands, there is really nothing you can prescribe to improve male fertility,” said Dr Martins da Silva. “Couples then go through the IVF process which is very complex, invasive and expensive.
“In Scotland we are lucky, but across the UK there is a lot of variation in access to treatment.
“My group in Dundee has teamed up with AstraZeneca to study a drug that has undergone varying degrees of development for a completely different disease that has certain properties that could prevent inflammatory cell damage that we believe is a common cause of male infertility.
“Every cell that metabolizes creates byproducts that can be potentially harmful. What normally happens is that there are natural antioxidants that mop up these potentially very damaging molecules.
“We think things like smoking, obesity, and chemical exposure probably override this imbalance. You see it in other illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure as well.
READ MORE: Couple who won IVF after years of pregnancy and heartache are expecting their first child
“The treatment approach (for male infertility) tried to date has been to give more antioxidants. There are a large number of trials with various vitamins and supplements – but the results vary widely and the treatment antioxidant is not reliably effective.
“It really is a game changer, because it starts on the other side of that chemical equation by saying what if we stop this in the first place.
“The great thing is that sperm are being produced all the time, so in theory you can take a pill for a few weeks or a few months and that might be enough to repair the damage and fix the problem. It could mean that couples don’t need to go through IVF at all. ”
(the drug was created by vaccine maker Covid AstraZeneca)
The team is now hoping to start a larger randomized controlled trial to find out whether the treatment might work when given to men as a tablet.
The drug’s license was bought by UK charity St George Street Capital which launched crowdfunding to raise money to fund the trial while the University of Dundee also requested funding.
The reasons for the decline in male fertility are still not fully understood, says the fertility expert, but environmental problems have played a role.
“Over time we have seen that the male age of fathers has increased, but we don’t think the age is as catastrophic for fertility as we women are.
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“But I really think that over time there are rates of testicular cancer and other things that affect male reproduction that increase over time.
“There was a great article published which showed that male sperm count has dropped 40-50% over the past five decades. Why, we really don’t know and it is a terrifying scenario to me.
“If you look around the planet you see pollution and toxins and all kinds of stuff and it can’t be a coincidence. As our lives become more electronic and we clutter our planet with a lot more stuff. . it’s probably a combination of things that are causing the problem. ”
Dr Martins da Silva will be among the speakers at an online event organized by the fertility charity Progress Educational Trust (PET) next Wednesday, which will focus on advances in Scottish research.
“We’re going to see how we can turn a specialty that needs help, research and innovation upside down.”