Infertility affects one in six Australian couples. In more than a third of infertility cases, the problem lies with the male partner, another third is due to the female partner and a third is due to combined or unexplained causes.
In men, infertility is most often due to problems with sperm production or their delivery to the egg. About one in 20 men have low numbers of sperm, causing infertility and about one in 100 men has no sperm count at all.
Sperm count has halved in many developed countries since the 1970s, but the reasons for declining sperm production remain unclear. Potential causes include increased incidence of obesity, poor diet, and exposure to environmental toxins.
What is male infertility?
Medically, infertility is diagnosed when a couple cannot get pregnant after having unprotected sex (every two – three days) for a year. After trying to get pregnant for one year, about 85 per cent of couples conceive. After two years, about 95 per cent of couples do conceive.
Male reproduction depends on making healthy sperm, and the ability to have an erection and ejaculate. Problems with either of these may affect fertility.
What are the causes of male infertility?
Male infertility is complex and there are many causes. The most common cause of male infertility is the lack of ability to develop mature, healthy sperm that travel to the site of the oocyte. This can be affected by
- Blockages to the passages through which sperm travel in the male tract
- Problems with sperm production, including low or no sperm produced, sperm motility or shape deficiencies
- Functional problems such as impotence relating to erectile or ejaculatory disfunction
- Inflammatory illnesses and infection, and immunological disorders.
In addition, injuries, chronic health problems, lifestyle choices (drug, alcohol, steroid use) and environmental exposures to toxins and endocrine disruptor chemicals can contribute to reduced male fertility.
What are the risk factors for male infertility?
- Smoking – smoking damages some reproductive organs
- Excessive alcohol use
- Using illegal drugs and certain prescribed medications
- Weight – being overweight
- Inflammatory conditions and infections, particularly viral infections like mumps, and sexually transmitted diseases
- Immune problems where antibodies are made against your own sperm
- Overheating testicles
- Existing medical conditions
- Genetic diseases eg; cystic fibrosis or haemochromatosis
- Environmental – exposure to pesticides, solvents and metals.
How can men improve fertility?
To maintain health sperm production avoid
- Excess alcohol drinking
- Catching or failing to adequately treat sexually transmitted infections
- Heat stress, restrictive underwear or clothing, sitting for long periods, heated seats, holding laptops on the groin
- Anabolic steroids, taken for bodybuilding or sport, which can reduce sperm count and mobility
- Pesticides and toxins.
In addition, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet and reducing stress help.
When should men seek help for infertility?
If a man has been unable to conceive a child after a year of unprotected intercourse, every two-three days, see a doctor. See a doctor earlier if you have any of the following
- Erection or ejaculation problems, low sex drive, or other problems with sexual function
- Pain or lump in the testicle area
- A history of testicle, prostate or sexual difficulties.
One in eight men have a treatable condition. In other cases, treatments are focused on increasing the odds of conception including surgery, hormone therapy, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).
Our male infertility research
Hudson Institute scientists are advancing the understanding of male biology to increase the chances of conception. Ongoing research is aimed at identifying the mechanisms behind male fertility, as well as finding and testing solutions that resolve male infertility. Our current projects are
Understanding how disruptions during fetal development and infancy increase infertility in adulthood
Molecular studies This project investigates how disruptions to pregnancy and in early life impact on testis development and adult fertility. The team is testing the impact of exposures during fetal life to conditions such as pre-eclampsia, inflammation and ingestion of certain medications on the survival and multiplication of the germ cells that arise in fertile life and go on to form sperm in adulthood.
This research has identified key proteins that allow normal development by signalling between the sperm precursors and the support cells that form the testis in which they develop. Projects with national and international collaborators allow the team to learn how these signals work and fail in the human, with the potential outcomes of testicular germ cell tumours and infertility.
Analysing the formation of sperm
Molecular and cellular studies. Prevention. Treatment. These studies aim to identify the key signalling molecules and cell types that are essential for normal sperm development, and which are central to male infertility. In particular, this research investigates the role of interactions between the somatic, or supporting, cells of the testis and the immune system and its cells in controlling sperm and hormone production. The focus of the work, is on the effects of infection and inflammatory diseases on the cells that produce the male sex hormones, on sperm production by the testis, and on sperm maturation and storage throughout the male reproductive tract. These studies seek to identify the risk factors for immunological infertility problems, and to discover preventative and therapeutic solutions to these problems.
Immune cell contributions to testis pathologies
Molecular studies These projects examine which immune cells are involved in the responses to pathogens and disease pathologies, with the goal of learning how to prevent long term impairment to male fertility. Working with colleagues at Justus-Liebig University, Giessen, the team is building a detailed understanding of immune cells in the testis from fetal life, when the testis first forms, to adulthood. These projects have special emphasis on human testicular cancers and infectious disease models to understand how immune cell actions determine the balance between reproductive health and disease.
Investigating male infertility
Collaboration. Hudson Institute has a long-standing interest in the causes and treatments of male infertility, including the mechanisms required to produce fertile sperm. Our scientists area leading members of the Monash Male DNA Infertility Repositoryinternationally recognised resource used for the study of the genetic origins of male infertility. The team collaborate widely with leading international centres and programs in order to establish the genetic diagnosis of male infertility.
Understanding the role of stem cells in male fertility
Molecular studies Stem cells are essential for maintenance and repair of many tissues. Sperm production in the testis is dependent on spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs). This project aims to understand how SSCs are regulated and their role in fertility maintenance and testis repair.
What regulates steroid production in the fetus?
Molecular studies This project is investigating how maternal health and exposures may contribute to determining what steroids, such as testosterone and estrogens, are made by the developing fetus. This has implications for adult fertility, as well as general health throughout life.
Male infertility collaborators
Support for people with male infertility
Hudson Institute scientists cannot provide medical advice.
Find out more about Female infertility.
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