In the first of a new series on tech in Northern Ireland from TechWatch, Emily McDaid introduces SpermComet, the Belfast business offering better fertility testing for men.
When couples face problems getting pregnant, they expect doctors can answer the question of why. What couples don’t realise is that the testing offered on the male’s side is often sub-par, answering only the most basic question: whether they have enough sperm.
“Not the quantity but the quality of the sperm – impacted by the presence or lack of DNA damage – is crucially important in the picture of fertility,” said SpermComet CEO Prof Sheena Lewis, from her office at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) campus.
One in six couples will fail to conceive and, in 40pc of cases, the primary problem is on the man’s side. Of this 40pc, nearly all cases (80pc) will have DNA damage.
Lewis launched SpermComet when she had a lightbulb moment, realising that testing perfected in her Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) lab could succeed on the consumer market. The test checks sperm health accurately, and offers men motivation to make lifestyle changes that can improve their chances of pregnancy.
“Nowadays, we realise that free radicals play a role in virtually every disease we have. Male infertility is no different,” she said.
“Men’s sperm are particularly susceptible to free radical damage as they have no repair mechanisms. Their DNA is easily injured. If sperm DNA damage occurs, it can stop a pregnancy happening at all, or cause a miscarriage.”
Lewis also added, “Damaged sperm look like comets under the microscope, with trails of broken DNA behind them,” which explains the name.
The free radical culprits can be caused by lifestyle factors such as smoking, poor diet, obesity and taking recreational drugs.
“Luckily, a man produces new sperm every three months, so he may be able to turn things around very quickly, once he knows about the problem,” said Lewis, indicating the advantage of having the test.
For me, the most fascinating thing is the length that couples will go to in improving their chances of having a baby, and yet they are going into the process blindly.
A couple will attend their GP, who refers them to get IVF, but the waiting times are huge if done on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the IVF will not work if the problem was DNA-damaged sperm in the first place. If the couple seeks private care, just one round of IVF could cost £5,000 to £10,000, and couples often need three to four treatments to have their much-wanted baby. Other couples will use expensive egg donors to try to improve the female side of fertility, without checking that their sperm are healthy.
SpermComet’s test costs a fraction of these prices at £250 when purchased from SpermComet directly, though it can be more in clinics. Furthermore, the SpermComet test tells couples whether they even need fertility interventions at all. Sometimes, the man just needs to improve his general wellbeing through lifestyle changes in order to limit the amount of sperm DNA damage occurring.
‘I have worked in this field for 25 years, and it was always clear to me that male fertility tests were blunt instruments that could be vastly improved’
– PROF SHEENA LEWIS, SPERMCOMET
“Despite technological advancements, the success rate of IVF has stagnated for 32 years, hovering at around 25-30pc resulting in a baby,” said Lewis.
“Until just a couple of years ago, miscarriages were always chalked up to the woman. I have worked in this field for 25 years, and it was always clear to me that male fertility tests were blunt instruments that could be vastly improved.”
I asked Lewis how she got started in the fertility business. “I knew the data was there,” she said. “The problem was finding a student who was willing to work all hours for this project.
“I finally found a diligent student who would collect as many samples as he could from the NHS fertility clinic here in RVH, take them back to the lab and perform testing – sometimes as late as midnight. Within three years we had data from more than 500 couples, which was a globally significant representative sample. The published papers created an immediate response from couples who wanted our test.”
The promise of SpermComet
At present, 32,000 women are treated for infertility in the UK per year, while there is an 8-9pc increase every year across Europe in the number of couples presenting to clinics. Fertility problems can cause huge stress to people, who are usually 30-somethings at the height of their careers and maybe haven’t faced a negative life event yet. The pressure on them is so great, it can even lead to relationships breaking down.
The health of a man’s sperm not only affects his fertility but it can affect the health of his child, too. Diseases such as epilepsy, autism and cancer have all been linked to sperm from older men where the likelihood of sperm DNA damage is much greater.
Lewis explained that couples can go directly to SpermComet or to a selection of fertility clinics in the UK or Republic of Ireland to produce a sample. As well as the Belfast labs and partner clinics, clients can self-refer to The PathLab in central London or access SpermComet directly through high street chemists MediCare and Framar Health on Lisburn Road. With the help of Invest NI, SpermComet is also in the process of expansion with two partner clinics into the United Arab Emirates.
A courier service collects samples from fertility clinics around the UK each week as all tests are conducted in Belfast. “We promise lab results are returned to clients in seven working days,” said Lewis.
With the promise of SpermComet recognised by its flagship clinic, Origin Fertility, and clinics from Aberdeen to Harley Street, Lewis took early retirement from QUB last year to focus entirely on the business. Now, she has six employees and all the testing on the samples to-date is done in their offices and labs on the Royal Victoria Hospital site.
“Queen’s strapline is: ‘Local talent, global impact’. We at SpermComet are proud to be part of that vision,” she said.
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch