In recent months, awareness has been growing about worrying trends in human fertility, especially male sperm counts and testosterone levels, largely as a result of a new book by Professor Shanna Swan, a reproductive health expert at Mt Sinai, New York.
Now scientists are claiming to have come up with a potential solution to certain forms of male infertility: 3D-printed testicular cells.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia say these new 3D-printed cells show promising early signs of being able to produce sperm.
“We’re 3D printing these cells into a very specific structure that mimics human anatomy, which we think is our best shot at stimulating sperm production,” says Dr Ryan Flannigan, in a university release.
“If successful, this could open the door to new fertility treatments for couples who currently have no other options.”
3D-printed testicular cells: the answer to male infertility
In their new study, the researchers performed a biopsy to collect stem cells from the testicles of a patient with non-obstructive azoospermia, a severe form of male infertility that prevents the production of sperm.
The researchers then grew these cells and 3D printed them into a hollow tubular structure resembling the seminiferous tubules.
These printed cells were able to survive for 12 days after printing, but even more impressively they started to mature into specialized cells which play a role in sperm production. They also showed “significant improvement in spermatogonial stem cell maintenance” — which is a key sign of a testicular cell’s ability to make sperm.
“It’s a huge milestone, seeing these cells survive and begin to differentiate. There’s a long road ahead, but this makes our team very hopeful,” Dr. Flannigan explains.
The next stage is to “coach” the cells to produce sperm. By exposing them to different nutrients and growth factors, the researchers now hope to perfect the structure of these tubes to better carry out cell-to-cell interactions. If the team succeeds, the tubes could produce sperm which can fertilize an egg through in vitro fertilization.
“Increasingly, we’re learning that there are likely many different causes of infertility and that each case is very patient specific,” Dr. Flannigan concludes.
“With that in mind, we’re taking a personalized, precision medicine approach – we take cells from a patient, try to understand what abnormalities are unique to them, and then 3D print and support the cells in ways that overcome those original deficiencies.”
The global fertility crisis
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it was considered the sole preserve of so-called cranks and conspiracy theorists to claim that industrial chemicals found in the environment, especially the drinking water, were causing serious reproductive effects in animals and humans, particularly affecting male fertility levels.
In 2015, Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, was roundly mocked for a rant in which he uttered the now famous line, ‘I don’t like ‘em putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay!’
Now, though, just five years later, those previously fringe concerns have well and truly gone mainstream, accompanied by some truly dire predictions. On March 10 last year, Politico ran an article with the headline, ‘No more babies? The hormone-altering chemicals threatening human procreation’, to coincide with the release of a new book on the subject by Dr Shanna Swan, a world expert on reproductive health at Mount Sinai, New York.
By 2045, Swan claims, the majority of men may no longer be able to reproduce because of the effects of harmful chemicals from a variety of sources. ‘We’re about 40 years behind global warming, in terms of awareness’, she notes, and yet the threat to human survival is just as great as, if not greater than, our concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Swan’s projections from available data, in 2045 the sperm count of the median man will reach zero, meaning that one half of all men will have no sperm at all, and the other half will have an amount that is barely more than zero. The implications are obvious: no sperm, no babies. Such a scenario has already been dubbed ‘Spermageddon’.
The root cause of the massive (59%) decrease in the sperm count of the average Western man between 1973 and 2011 appears to be the growing exposure to endocrine (i.e. hormone)-disrupting chemicals, such as pthalates and bisphenol A, which are now ubiquitous in the modern developed world. Plastics, electronic goods, packaging, pesticides, cosmetics, personal hygiene products and, yes, the drinking water and food supply all contain such chemicals that disrupt male fertility.
Worrying new research shows that microplastics accumulate in the gonads
A new meta-analysis has clarified the serious damage microplastics can do to mammalian reproductive function.
The new study, published in the journal Life Sciences, is yet further evidence of the dreadful toll these miniscule pieces of plastic — which are more or less everywhere you care to look in the modern world — are having.
The study is the first attempt to draw together all existing evidence for the reproductive effects microplastics have been documented as having in mammals.
The results are unequivocal: microplastics accumulate in the reproductive organs of mammals where they cause pervasive reproductive damage.
Click here to read more about this unsettling new study
Many of these chemicals are referred to as xenoestrogens, because of the way that they mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen. The endocrine-disrupting effects of Atrazine, a pesticide which is banned in the EU but still widely used in the US, have been known for some time.
In 2006, a statement was made before the House Committee on Government Reform about the increasing number of male fish observed to be bearing eggs in the Potomac River. Industrial run-off, as well as contamination by personal care products and contraceptives, was identified as the likely cause.
Pthalates, first introduced on a wide scale in the 1950s, with the introduction of PVC, are linked to a variety of negative reproductive effects. They are used to increase plastic flexibility, and as a result have a huge variety of applications: in food containers, water bottles and children’s toys, as well as foams, solvents, perfumes, pesticides, nail polish, adhesives and lubricants.
Studies have shown that prenatal exposure to pthalates, i.e. through the mother, may cause feminisation of baby boys and result in smaller penis size.
Some of the other most commonly encountered xenestrogenic chemicals, and their sources (in brackets), are:
- 4MBC (in sun lotion)
- Hydroxy-anisole butyrate (a food preservative)
- Bisphenol-A (a food preservative and plasticiser)
- Dieldrin (a pesticide)
- DDT (a pesticide. Although it is banned in the US, it is used in countries that export food to the US)
- Erythrosine (a red dye)
- PCB (in lubricants, adhesives and paints)
- P-nonylphenol (in PVC and by-products from detergents and spermicide)
- Parabens (in lotions)
Yes, that’s right: the spermicide on the condom you’re wearing to prevent unwanted pregnancy may, in the long run, be preventing you from ever getting anybody pregnant – condom or no. So temporarily disabling male fertility male have future ramifications.
But it’s not just xenoestrogens that are responsible for the precipitous decline in male fertility we’re witnessing. Swan also points to a variety of other factors that seem to be at work, including the use of contraceptives, obesity, smoking and ‘cultural shifts’, a rather vague term which would have deserved further explanation. Could it be that as men behave – or are given less room to behave – in less stereotypically manly ways, they may actually become so? There may be other biological factors at work too, she suggests, pointing to the collapse in testosterone levels in western men over the last half century.
Although falling testosterone levels are a fact of life for all men as they age – after the age of 30, a man can expect to lose 1% of his natural testosterone every year for the rest of his life – this natural reduction pales in comparison with the society-wide collapse in T levels that has occurred over the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Men today have considerably less T than men of the same age even a single generation ago. A 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed a significant reduction in the T levels of men since the 1980s. A 60-year-old American man in 2004, for example, had 17% less testosterone than a 60-year-old American man in 1987. These findings were corroborated in a study of Danish men, who displayed a two-digit decline between the 1920s and the 1960s.
While the collapse of testosterone is likely to be linked to the ubiquity of the xenoestrogenic chemicals Swan warns about, sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of phytoestrogens are also likely to be playing a large role.
While the role of phytoestrogens, natural compounds such as soy and hops that also mimic the effects of estrogen, requires like further explanation, the role of fat tissue in hormonal balance is not widely appreciated enough. In basic terms, fat tissue is naturally estrogenic, and the more of it you have, the more of the hormone your body will produce. All in all, it adds up to a witch’s brew of environmental, social and biological factors that are making it ever harder for men to maintain their masculinity and fulfil their biological purpose.
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