New Research Could Lead to Better Screening, Treatment for Infertile Couples

California researchers may have unlocked a big mystery in infertility

An embryologist adds sperm to an egg

Researchers at UC Davis may have stumbled onto a way to identify a major cause of infertility in couples. The discovery could unlock a new pathway for better screening and treatment options.

The research, which appears this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found that sperm which lack a protein coating called DEFB126 have a hard time reaching the egg. Scientists think the discovery may explain a significant proportion of male infertility, which make up about half of all infertility cases worldwide.

Protein-less sperm, it seems, have trouble swimming through mucus and avoiding the female immune system. And as we all know from sixth grade health class, if the sperm can’t reach the egg, well, there’s a problem.

It’s a big one: Infertility affects up to 15 percent of the US population. And the study found that as many as a quarter of men worldwide carry a defective gene for the protein, which may significantly hamper their ability to reproduce. Researchers hope that the discovery could lead to new testing and faster diagnoses, so that if a sperm sample was found to be missing the essential protein, doctors could bypass other diagnostic tests and immediately begin an appropriate treatment plan.

You can imagine the trickle down: Besides more babies (and—we hope—happy parents), the medical cost of infertility might be reduced. With fewer tests to run, patients could see medical bills lowered.

And that’s a good thing: Fertility treatments run the gamut from $50 a month for pills to upwards of $15,000 for more aggressive treatments, such as in vitro fertilization. Using a surrogate can cost up to $50,000 once legal fees are factored in.

So in the world of infertility, a penny saved anywhere along the way is a good thing. That should make quite a few hopeful parents—and their bank accounts—very happy.