Robotic search for drugs that block sperm motility

The hunt for the first male contraceptive pill is on, and scientists at Dundee University may have the needed tool to find it – a robotic screening system.

A team of researchers at Dundee University in Scotland may have the solution in producing the first-ever male contraceptive pill, and they’re a step closer to achieving it. The team has built the first automated robotic sperm-testing system, which helps scientists test the efficacy of a chemical compound on semen and how it affects the sperm.

Published in the online journal eLife, the study highlights how the new robotic system can test previously approved and clinically tested drugs to find a safe and effective male contraceptive.

Platform overview
Platform overview

Finding effective drugs

The team aims to provide potential effective agents that can stop the sperm in its tracks. They believe that with further research and work, they can find a suitable long-term drug that can be used as a male birth control pill component.

For years, female contraceptive pills have been used widely across the globe. However, there is still no suitable pill for male contraception. There is an urgent need to develop new methods for male contraception, with vasectomy and condom use as only the common options existing for men.

There are many reasons why efforts to produce the first male pill have been hampered, including poor understanding of the human sperm, lacking studies linking a protein target in human sperm to the key functions that sperm perform after leaving the male, and lastly, an absence of an effective system to filter the effects of the chemicals and drugs that are available.

Miniature parallel testing system

To help researchers test the drugs to find which ones are effective mas male contraceptive pills, the team developed a miniature parallel testing system run by a robot. The machine uses a fast microscope and image-processing tools to accurately see and track the fast movements of human sperm, allowing the team to precisely measure the effects of the drugs on sperm.

"This new system speeds up the process of drug hunting several thousand-fold. The automated system also uses a different method to examine the effects of drugs on a second critical aspect required for fertilization, called the acrosome reaction. This dual-platform now allows for major drug discovery programs that address the critical gap in the contraceptive portfolio as well as uncover novel human sperm biology,” Dr. Paul Andrews, who leads the National Phenotypic Screening Centre (NPSC) in Dundee University, said.

"By using live human sperm and examining their behavior, or phenotype, in the presence of drugs and other chemicals, we hope to circumvent the need to second-guess which proteins are important for the cellular processes underlying sperm's fertilization capacity,” he added.

In total, the team assessed and screened around 13,000 drugs, called the ReFRAME collection. With the help of the breakthrough robotic system, testing and studying each of the drugs will be easier and faster.

“We identified several compounds that potently inhibit motility representing either novel drug candidates or routes to target identification. This platform will now allow for major drug discovery programs that address the critical gap in the contraceptive portfolio as well as uncover novel human sperm biology,” the team wrote on the paper.

The two-year project is a collaboration between Dundee University’s Schools of Medicine and Life Sciences, with the team hoping to find an already-approved drug to mimic male infertility.

Currently, contraception is an important area for research. There are 89 million unintended pregnancies and 48 million abortions each year across the globe, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Women are often pushed to making life choices that can heighten the risk of severe health risks and poverty. A form of male contraception, which is reliable and effective, is crucial to address the critical gap in the contraceptive portfolio.

Journal reference:

Gruber, F.m Johnston, Z., Barratt, C., and Andrews, P. (2020). A phenotypic screening platform utilizing human spermatozoa identifies compounds with contraceptive activity. eLife. https://elifesciences.org/articles/51739

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

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Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.

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