Spermbots: The Future of In Vivo Fertilisation?

Updated on March 31, 2018
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Verity is simultaneously pursuing a physics degree and a teaching degree. In her spare time, she likes to cook & play video games.

Introduction

In January 2016 it was revealed that a breakthrough in nanotechnology had been achieved; in the form of the ‘spermbot’. The spermbot, inspired by the real-life flagella and cilia, is a helical-shaped piece of technology which is designed to attach to the tail of the male sperm cell. [1] This allows for the propulsion and direction control of the sperm.

A rendering of what the Spermbot looks like
A rendering of what the Spermbot looks like | Source

How Does It Work?

The flexible, helix spermbot is made of layers of titanium and iron nanotubes. As seen in the image above, the end of the helix closer to the head of the sperm is narrower than the other end. This allows for the sperm cell to become ‘trapped’ in the spermbot.

The navigation of the spermbot is controlled using a magnetic field. A customized set of Helmholtz coils is used to create an artificial rotating magnetic field. Combined with an optical microscope, closed-loop control of the spermbots can be achieved [1][2].

How Can It Help With Fertilisation?

One of the suggested applications of the spermbot is in the field of in vivo reproduction. Sperm with very low mobility cannot usually penetrate and fertilise a female egg cell, and for some couples hoping to conceive this can put an end to their hopes.

However, it is proposed that the spermbot can be used to ‘drive’ the sperm directly into the egg and fertilization can take place. The current likelihood of in vitro fertilization (IVF) being successful in women under 35 is around 32% [2], however, a oocyte fertilization was achieved 40-50% of the time (with one immotile sperm by ICSI) in a clinical practice [1].

These results are exceedingly promising and with refinement, it may be possible that this process could offer double the success rate of current IVF procedures.

An image showing the sperm being driven towards the egg, using the spermbot.
An image showing the sperm being driven towards the egg, using the spermbot. | Source

What Are the Problems With This?

A current problem facing the development of this technique is the time delay and temperature fluctuations experienced when transferring oocyte sperm cells from culture dishes to the appropriate fluidic environment.

A further complication is found when considering that this method of fertilization has taken place in carefully constructed, ideal environments. The technology has not been tested in elastic environments, as would be found in the oviduct, further research is needed to understand how this may impact the ability to control the spermbot. [1]

How Else Could This Technology Be Used?

Another suggested use for this technology is as a drug delivery service. This would allow for extremely precise control and ‘drop’ of chemicals and substances. The area is largely under-researched as there are a few pertinent problems with this suggestion.

Firstly, the problem of maneuvering the spermbot inside enclosed, elastic spaces has not been tested.

Secondly, the sperm cell would be recognised by the body as a foreign invader and an immune response would take place. This phagocytosis reduces the possible lifespan of the spermbot. However, it is suggested that this second limitation may be solved in the same way that bacterial pathogens use appropriate blocking methods to prevent being engulfed by leukocytes. [2]

References

[1] Medina-Sanchez, M., Schwarz, L., Meyer, A.K., Hebenstreit, F., Schmidt, O.G. “Cellular Cargo Delivery: Toward Assisted Fertilization by Sperm Carrying Micromotors.” Nano Letters, ACS Publication (2016), 16, pp555-561

[2] Magdanz, V., Guix, M., Schmidt, O.G. “Tubular micromotors: from microjets to spermbots.” Robotics and Biomimetics (2014)

[3] NHS Choices, “IVF”, http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/IVF/Pages/Introduction.aspx , (Accessed 20th October 2016)

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      • right1 profile image

        right one 2 weeks ago from Pale Blue Dot

        One more breakthrough in life sciences. the question arises if such invention will help address the population growth challenge?

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