Our study


Sperm undergo a lot of changes after ejaculation. Our research studies how sperm power themselves at different stages of their journey through the female reproductive tract. By doing this, we want to learn more about male factor infertility.

Male infertility

Male infertility is responsible for approximately half of the infertility experienced in heterosexual couples. Infertility may arise if not enough sperm are able to swim, the technical term for this is asthenozoospermia (low sperm motility).

In such cases, this can be overcome by injecting a single sperm into an egg, a procedure called Intra-cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI). Over 30,000 of these procedures are performed each year in the UK.

ICSI is expensive and often couples have to pay privately for this procedure. It would be preferable if the motility of sperm could be improved so that in some cases ICSI could be avoided (either by using other treatments like conventional IVF or avoiding assisted conception altogether).

The chemistry of sperm motility

Sperm require energy in the form of ATP in order to move their tails and swim. ATP is made by breaking down molecules (such as glucose) and capturing the energy from this reaction – this is a key process for metabolism.

This project is using a Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (pictured) to decipher which molecules are in sperm and which molecules can be broken down by sperm to make energy. The project will examine samples of sperm with both high motility and low motility and look for differences between them.

Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer - the machine used to look at molecules in sperm.
Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer - the machine used to look at molecules in sperm.

Overall aim

We aim to find out what differences there are between sperm that swim well and those that do not. This is the first step towards discovering a new treatment for poor sperm motility.

Our acronym

SPERM stands for Spectroscopic Probes of Energy Regulation and Metabolism – this means we are using a powerful tool called magnetic resonance spectroscopy to look at sperm metabolism. From this we hope to find out what is going wrong in sperm that don’t swim very well.

The SPERM study is a collaborative project with researchers from the Academic Unit of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine and Academic Unit of Radiology.


Funding from the MRC, Grant No. MR/M010473/1