Men’s Health Month: The Future of Digital Fertility

The month of June brings about many things: the summer solstice, end of the school year, outdoor concerts, planning vacations, and the overall feeling of freedom and sunshine.

Less known about June, however, is that it’s also Men’s Health Month.

Despite men making up half our population, men’s health topics are not commonly discussed – in particular, men’s fertility.

More than 45 million couples worldwide experience challenges when trying to get pregnant. The eye-opening conversation with a doctor that brings to light the reality that you may not be able to grow your family in the way you always envisioned, can be heartbreaking. When the issue arises, the spotlight seems to automatically focus in on the woman. However, men contribute to more than 40 percent of infertility cases worldwide. Recently, scientists have also found that about 90% of sperm within the typical young male exhibit some abnormality; whether it be shape, size, concentration or motility.

So why is the focus still so much on the woman?

Currently male infertility testing must be done within a clinical setting. There are currently a number of “at home” kits and technologies for women; however, over-the-counter options for men are limited.  Along with tests being expensive, the required office visit can be embarrassing, or even intimidating for many.

The team of Hadi Shafiee, PhD, a scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has created a smartphone-based test and application that can measure the quality of semen. Supported by the Brigham Digital Innovation Hub and Brigham and Women’s Translational Accelerator, this device connects to your smartphone and has the ability to identify abnormal semen samples. The semen sample is placed on a disposable miniature tray, which is inserted into an opening on an optical cellphone accessory attached to the phone. The smartphone application analyzes a recorded video of the semen sample to measure sperm concentration and mobility. The analyzer has an overall 98% accuracy rate in identifying abnormal semen samples. This test is as simple as women’s home ovulation kits. One of the reasons that digital innovation is the direction in which healthcare is going is because of evolving patient expectations. Patients today feel more connected to and in control of their health, and this app is a great example of that trend.

Shafiee grew up in the small town of Abadeh, in Iran. After receiving his Bachelor and Masters in Engineering, from Isfahan University of Technology and University of Tehran, he received a full scholarship from Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Sciences and Mechanics. Here he went on to defend his dissertation on the development of a microchip technology for rare cell detection and enrichment in biological samples. “I wanted to do something different and impactful during my PhD in the U.S.,” said Shafiee. “I found bioengineering and particularly micro- and nanotechnologies, and their application in biology and medicine, fascinating. I did not have any experience in bioengineering, but I was ready to accept the challenge and learn something fundamentally new outside of my home country.”

He conquered the subject of male fertility in the same manner.

So where did this idea come from?

“Through our conversations with fertility experts at BWH and MGH, I identified some stigma-related issues in male infertility testing and came up with the idea of using the advancements in consumer electronics and micro-fabrications to find a creative and practical solution for such a need,” said Shafiee. “I was excited about the potential of using cell phones for male infertility testing at home, but I wasn’t sure if this idea could be commercialized, and what the business model around such a device would be. The Brigham Digital Innovation Hub team listened to my idea. They connected me to the right people at the right time and gave me pilot funding to develop a proof of concept. They were instrumental.”

So, why do you think that most people are focused on women’s infertility, and have not gone more in depth with the issue of male infertility?

“I think [male infertility] is a fundamental cultural issue that all of us are facing in the current society even in our well-developed country, the U.S.,” he stated. “We envy someone such as George Clooney, while someone like Jennifer Aniston is questioned by society and news outlets for not getting pregnant, when they are around the same age. We live in a society that believes it’s her fault if a woman can’t get pregnant, and that is somehow connected to the culture of praising the men’s power of procreation.”

So, what’s next? How do we as a society bring this topic into the same light as female infertility issues?

“It seems that the male infertility area is neglected and the male infertility diagnosis, management, and treatment have not been significantly changed over the past few decades,” said Shafiee. “We need to shift the paradigm in research around fertility and invest more in areas related to male infertility.”

Shafiee is currently working with the Brigham and Women’s Translational Accelerator (TA) – specifically Lina Williamson, Lindsey Baden and Earmonn Hobbs – to help commercialize his technology and ultimately improve patient care.

Want to read more about Shafiee’s team and the male fertility app?

Check out the articles below!

Brigham and Women’s Bulletin

The Guardian

Boston Globe

CNN