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What Is Azoospermia, An Infertility Problem In Men? Is ‘3D-Printed Sperm’ A New Hope?

Azoospermia is a medical condition characterised by a complete absence of sperm in the ejaculate. In men diagnosed with infertility, around 15 per cent has azoospermia. [1]

There are many factors responsible for causing the condition and early diagnosis and treatment can help manage azoospermia well.

One of the recently developed treatment methods for azoospermia is 3D printed sperm by the scientists at the University of British Columbia.

The article will take you to the details of azoospermia like its causes and symptoms and will also discuss the 3D-printed sperm, which is considered to be new hope for people with the condition.

What Are The Types Of Azoospermia?

Azoospermia is the most severe and among the leading causes of infertility in men. The condition is classified into two types: obstructive azoospermia (OA) and non-obstructive azoospermia (NOA).

1. Obstructive azoospermia

Around 40 per cent of people with azoospermia will have obstructive azoospermia. The condition can be caused by a variety of factors, including a congenital bilateral absence of the vas deferens, enlargement of the seminal vesicles and genitourinary tract infections [2]

Spermatogenesis or the production of sperm cells is generally normal in OA. As a result, in addition to other assisted reproductive procedures, surgical repair of the obstruction is frequently used to treat OA.

2. Non-obstructive azoospermia

Nonobstructive azoospermia is the most common of azoospermia, responsible for roughly 60% of all azoospermic men. The most common cause of NOA is severe spermatogenesis deficiencies, which are mainly caused due to primary testicular failure or malfunction.

The condition can also be caused by pituitary or hypothalamic dysfunction. NOA is idiopathic (of unknown cause) in nature. It can generally be treated using advanced assisted reproductive procedures (primary testicular failure). [3]

Causes Of Azoospermia

Some of the causes of OA include:

  • Vasectomy
  • A congenital lung disease resulting in a congenital bilateral absence of the vas deferens (tubes that carry sperm out of the testes do not develop properly).
  • Obstruction of the ejaculatory and epididymal ducts.
  • Complications due to surgery such as bilateral hernia surgery leading to injury or blockage in the vas deferens (where the sperm are stored prior to ejaculation).
  • Sexually transmitted diseases leading to scarring. The condition causes blockage of sperm inside the ducts.
  • Cysts in the vas deferens.

The causes of NOA are subdivided into two parts: pretesticular NOA which is caused due to disruption in the hormones which are needed for sperm production, and testicular NOA which is caused due to some obstructions preventing the testes from producing sperm. [4]

Some of the causes of pretesticular NOA are:

  • Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism leading to failure in the production of hormones which are needed to produce sperm.
  • Use of certain medications.
  • Elevated levels of estradiol in the body.
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Rare pituitary tumours. [5]

Some of the causes of testicular NOA are:

  • Testicular cancer
  • Cryptorchidism, a medical condition in which one or both the testes are unable to descend from the abdominal area into the scrotum.
  • Chemotherapy or exposure to radiation.
  • Sertoli-cell only syndrome
  • Mumps infection. [6]
  • Some genetic deficiencies like Klinefelter that is often undiagnosed until adulthood.

Symptoms Of Azoospermia

Some of the possible symptoms of azoospermia may include:

  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Low sex drive
  • Inflammation around the testicles.
  • Insufficient production of hair on the face and body.

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Treatment Of Azoospermia

Treatment of azoospermia is based on the patient's underlying condition, age, family goals, reproductive functions and diagnostic results such as blood test results. Based on these factors, a customised treatment is carried out.

Some of the treatment options may include:

  • Surgery: if there's a problem related to the blockage or abnormal development of the tubes.
  • Medications: To treat low hormone production.
  • Microsurgical Testicular Sperm Extraction: Microsurgery that involves the extraction of sperm, if found during the diagnosis. [7]

What Is 3D-Printed Sperm?

3D-Printed Sperm is a new technology that uses a 3D bioprinter to duplicate fully functional sperm in a lab. The research can help treat male infertility problems, especially non-obstructive azoospermia. [8]

To carry out the research, the researcher and his colleagues took stem cells from a biopsy of a patient with NOA's testicles for the investigation.

After that, the cells were cultured. When the sperm continued to show good viability, they were 3D printed onto a Petri plate into a hollow tubular structure that resembles the sperm-producing seminiferous tubules.

It was noticed that the sperm cells not only survived but thrived after 12 days.

Is 3D Printed Sperm A New Hope?

According to Dr Ryan Flannigan, urology assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the head of the research, the technology of 3D sperm printing is interesting but may require many more years before putting the technology into clinical practice.

The next goal of the researcher is to train the printed sperm cells to producing sperm such as by exposing them to different growth factors and nutrients.

If the aforementioned goal gets successful, the next big step is to use the printed sperm to fertlise eggs through IVF, giving chances to men with NOA to become biological fathers.

To Conclude

Staying healthy by eating a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, limiting exposure to radiation and staying away from rough activities, can help in sperm production and treating mild cases of azoospermia. However, if the condition is genetic or due to complications that cannot be reversed, professional help is suggested.

Story first published: Tuesday, May 3, 2022, 10:04 [IST]