Focus on male infertility at international event at Queen's

November 18, 2009

Male infertility and tackling falling birth rates across Europe will be among the topics addressed at this year's British Andrology Society's annual conference at Queen's University in Belfast.

World leaders in the field of andrology - the study of male reproduction - will meet at Queen's this week (Thursday and Friday) to discuss the latest developments in the field of fertility including the potential to create artificial sperm from stem cells.

The conference organiser, Professor Sheena Lewis from the Centre of Public Health in the University's School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, says research into male fertility is vastly underfunded.

Professor Lewis said: "Male infertility is now a public health issue. Infertility affects one in six couples around Europe and the male partner is responsible for 40% of these problems.

"DNA damage to sperm is a major cause of male infertility. "We know sperm DNA damage is closely associated with all fertility check points and also longer times to get pregnant and increased pregnancy loss."

Over the past 50 years birth rates have declined at an unprecedented rate so that instead of the 2.1 children a couple necessary to maintain population replacement current rates stand at 1.5 births per woman. Only a minimal increase to 1.6 is expected by 2030.

Last year the European Parliament acknowledged for the first time that falling fertility rates were a major cause of demographic decline.

There are many possible reasons for the fall in the European birth rate including changes in women's roles in society and the choice of some couples to be childfree. But research shows that European couples of child-bearing age would like to have more children but are unable to.

As social trends have not altered significantly over the past 50 years researchers, say it is more likely that falling birth rates are impacted more by an increase in infertility. Over mortality and migration, infertility is the major determinant of Europe's future population.

Professor Lewis explained: "We are trying to develop diagnostic tests to give couples more information about the causes of their infertility and how to improve their chances of a successful conception.

"We need to do this through multi-centred trials and this can only be done with increased government funding.

"Sperm DNA can be damaged by lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol, drugs and obesity. Sperm DNA tests have a huge potential as they can determine the basis of damage so we can find ways to protect it."

A major component of the solution to falling birth rates is through assisted reproductive technology (ART) but Professor Lewis says that for ART success rates to be improved much more research, including the prognostic sperm tests, needed to be carried out.

"Research into infertility has not been deemed strategic to health services or governments over the past three decades and so had been dogged by lack of funding.

"This is illustrated by UK statistics where research councils or charities spend less than one per cent on reproductive research compared with nine per cent on cardiovascular research and 27 per cent on cancer studies.

"Stemming the tide with ART techniques including IVF and ICSI - where one sperm is injected into an egg - will make a significant contribution to tackling the falling birth rates."

Queen's University Belfast

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