Failing to achieve fatherhood symptom of trend to have kids later
THERE are three main criteria by which male sperm is assessed: volume, mobility and shape. When Russell Davis visited a Harley Street clinic for a test after he and his wife were struggling to conceive, he failed on every count.
“It was disastrous,” said the 42-year-old. “The doctor even asked me if I had ever been exposed to dangerous radiation because it was so bad. I had no family history [of infertility], my parents and brother and sister conceived with no problems.
“It was such a kick in the teeth. I felt I couldn’t provide my wife with what she wanted, that it was my fault and I couldn’t do what every man should.”
So much masculinity depends on such simple laboratory results .
Perhaps this is why the issue of male infertility is one rarely broached, even though it is responsible for 30% of infertility problems among couples.
However, the hard truths of male infertility remain and the treatment of them has been assessed as a global market now worth several billion euros.
Estimates suggest one in five men will suffer some problem with their sperm production — and as people tend to wait until later in life to start having a family now, the problem is becoming more acute.
“It’s hard to define the scale of male fertility,” Professor Allan Pacey, one of Britain’s leading male fertility specialists, says.
“Men can be devastated by an infertility diagnosis and many don’t cope with it very well.
Women tend to confide in their friends, parents and sisters about infertility. Men tend not to do that.”
Presently, there is no “cure“. Couples can either undergo a process called Inter-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – which differs from IVF as a single sperm is chosen to inject in the egg – or seek a sperm donor.
For the future, scientists at the Kallistem Laboratory, in France, are examining new ways to tackle male infertility. In doing so, they have claimed to have achieved a world first by managing to grow “fully-functioning” human sperm cells from scraps of genetic material.
The process transforms basic male fertility cells, called spermatogonia, into mature sperm in test tubes, which can then be used to fertilise an egg. It is something scientists across the world have been attempting for 15 years, but previously have only managed to replicate artificially in mice.
The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and, as a result, is being greeted with caution, for there have been numerous false dawns before.
If proven, it would be a leap forward of huge significance. However, spermatogenesis, the process through which the basic reproduction cells develop into sperm, is extremely complex and usually takes 72 days to occur in the human body.
Dr Liberty Barnes, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge and author of Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine and Identity, says fertility has traditionally always been seen as a solely female issue.
“It has only been the last 10 years or so that we have really started talking about this. The focus has been on women for a long time.”
However, miracles do still happen. None more so than for Russell Davis – the man with the apparently useless sperm – who today lives in Cornwall with his wife Bevan and their eight-year-old son, Ewan. In 2006, just as they were about to embark on their first cycle of ICSI treatment, his wife conceived naturally.
“I was unhappy, stressed and scared and thought I wouldn’t be happy without children,” says Davis, who, following his diagnosis, quit his job in IT and retrained as a hypnotherapist.
“When I let go of all that my wife got pregnant naturally. We couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until I saw the scan that I thought ‘this is actually happening’. I just cried with disbelief.”