Despite all the gloom and doom preached in teenage sex ed classes, getting pregnant when you're actually trying to can be shockingly hard. According to Dr. Dolores Lamb, a fertility specialist, in any given year, between 15 to 20 percent of all couples in America wind up seeking treatment for fertility issues, contributing to a $40 billion dollar global market. Although culturally infertility is often seen as a women's problem, 40 percent of the time a couple's difficulty conceiving is caused by an issue with a male partner or donor—and 20 percent of the time, problems in both a man and woman's reproductive systems contribute to infertility. But despite the role men play in infertility, up until a few years ago almost every at-home fertility test or aid was marketed toward women. By some counts, only 20 percent of men in couples struggling to get pregnant actually sought basic fertility analysis at clinics, thanks in large part to the stigma that finding out a man is infertile will emasculate him.
These disparities and cultural hang-ups may seem like insurmountable challenges for many couples hoping to get pregnant. But earlier this summer, Aidmics, a Taiwanese start-up microscopic biology firm, announced its plans to release a new at-home fertility test for men. Aidmics hopes its test will help plug the gender gap in fertility tools and allow men to detect basic fertility issues discretely and quickly. The system will perform basic sperm analysis, and its results will display information about men's sperm count and motility, often touted in popular accounts as key issues in male fertility. These are issues that can supposedly be improved by simple lifestyle changes (eating better, exercising more, reducing heat and constriction on your balls) or by common surgeries and medications if the problem persists over several months despite lifestyle adjustments. Enticingly dubbed the iSperm, Aidmics's system could revolutionize the male fertility market, though it probably won't help many men actually overcome their fertility issues.
The iSperm got its name because it was (surprise, surprise) designed as a physical add-on to an app for iPad Minis. Basically, it's a microscope attachment (with a resolution of up to 1 micrometer) built into an iPad case that goes over the device's camera. Disposable semen sample collection tubes slip onto the microscope attachment, then use backlighting to create a Full HD video of a man's jizz, recorded onto the iPad and analyzed by the accompanying app to provide basic data and discretionary footage.
The iSperm system isn't just a pie-in-the-sky design, either. It's already used all over the world—although Aidmics has so far only marketed the system for use in livestock breeding. Boar farmers swear by it as a great alternative to more expensive microscopes and tests, with come claiming that they've seen a boost of up to 20 percent in their animals' pregnancy rates since adopting the system. And Taiwanese state institutions have given it their backing as well. The company says it's just been waiting for United States Food and Drug Administration approval to expand its usage to humans. But given the FDA's hands-off approach when it comes to home health tools, they're fairly confident that they'll receive approval within a couple of years.
"If everything goes smoothly," Jolanda Hsu, Aidmics' Business Development Manager, wrote to VICE in an e-mail, "we [expect] to launch the product [for humans] in the third quarter of 2017."
The iSperm isn't the very first at-home male fertility kit. In 2012, SpermCheck broke that barrier in America, retailing at just $39.99 in major pharmacy chains. Based on technology created by a cell biologist at the University of Virginia, it uses a protein found in the heads of mature sperm to check for a basic threshold of sperm numbers and health, then displays a simple fertile or infertile reading on what looks like a wider version of a female pregnancy test stick. The test boasts 98 percent accuracy and easy-to-read, intuitive results within 10 minutes.
Aidmics can't challenge SpermCheck and other products on price—the iSperm is set to retail for between $100 and $200—but they claim that their tools are easier to use, and their results do materialize in just 17 seconds rather than ten minutes. Those results are more robust as well, providing clearer data on sperm numbers and motility, and even some basic info on morphology that you can't find in any other tests. Aidmics thereby claims to be the best bang for your buck.
"Humans are unique in that the men have just horrible-shaped sperm. They have lots of abnormal ones with two heads, two tails, all types of weird shapes." —Dr. Dolores Lamb
Unfortunately, no matter how good the iSperm is at visualizing sperm, that's not actually going to help most men get to the roots of their fertility issues. Sperm count and motility don't cover all the factors involved in basic sperm analysis—liquefaction time, total ejaculate volume, the presence of white blood cells and fructose, and the direction of sperm all deserve consideration as well, but can't be traced by the iSperm or other male home fertility kits. Sperm analysis is just a frontline test; it can't really detect fertility or infertility on its own.
"[Sperm analysis] is very misused in that way," Dr. Dolores Lamb, a professor of urology specializing in fertility issues at the Baylor College of Medicine, told VICE. "You could only be guaranteed that a man is infertile if he has no sperm in his ejaculate… [Conversely] you could have perfectly normal looking sperm, number, shape, motility, and so on, but if they can't penetrate the egg, then you would still be infertile."
Sperm count is increasingly meaningless compared to other signs of infertility thanks to our ability to isolate one sperm and inject it into one egg—a technique that now accounts for up to 1.5 percent of all conceptions in America, and more in other nations. Sperm analysis is still useful if it can show you detailed morphology, or irregularities in every property of the sperm, both of which can cause major fertility issues even if you can isolate one sperm. But the iSperm can't yet account for all of these factors.
"Humans are unique in that the men have just horrible-shaped sperm," says Dr. Lamb. "They have lots of abnormal ones with two heads, two tails, all types of weird shapes… [Livestock] have a lot nicer looking sperm than humans do."
For human males, there are many more in-depth tests someone suffering from infertility could and perhaps should pursue—especially if isolating a single sperm into an egg doesn't work. Hormone levels, interfering antibodies, genetic defects, nutritional issues, radiation exposure, and inherent flaws in sperm cells, their production, and their behavior can all be easily detected and often treated or troubleshot in some way using more involved tests in fertility clinics. But getting a "fertile" reading on a sperm count test can dissuade men from further exploring these options. Meanwhile, getting an "infertile" reading can send men down paths of undue worry as well, especially when they either screw up the somewhat complex preparation and conditions for sample collection and get a bad reading or poorly interpret their sperm counts and motilities, perhaps feeling inadequate when compared to global average statistics for fertile men.
"I could imagine individuals obsessing over all sorts of [figures] that could be in the realm of normal," says Dr. Lamb.
This doesn't mean that iSperm is a useless or utterly misleading system though. Up to four percent of men have no sperm in their semen whatsoever (usually due to some kind of plumbing problem), which the kit could help them to detect. Likewise, it could also help a man test whether his vasectomy has been successful—because they don't always stick.
More importantly, the iSperm can be used as a simple tool to send basic sperm analysis to a doctor digitally, without the shame, stigma, or hassle of going into the clinic. Advances in technology could allow doctors to make some basic calls and start a serious conversation about men's fertility issues.
"There's a huge move for using iPads for… home diagnostics that get sent to a lab," says Dr. Lamb. "That's going to be part of the future. And I'm sure this could be used for similar effects."
Even if iSperm isn't a cure-all (or even especially helpful) fertility tool, it will still sell in America due to our fascination with our own sperm.
"I think that lots of people would be interested," says Dr. Lamb, "if only to see their sperm swimming and what they look like."
Hsu acknowledges that getting to see your sperm is a big draw for Aidmics's customers. That's probably why they made it automatically save HD video of the swimmers after each sample.
Ultimately, iSperm will empower those with the right mindset to get a better frontline read on male fertility, and enable nervous Nellies to have serious conversations on the subject that they might previously have avoided. Just don't expect it to fix your junk in one shot.
Follow Mark on Twitter.