Northern Ireland

Belfast breakthrough offers hope to infertile couples

Image caption The breakthrough offers fresh hope to couples suffering unexplained infertility

A scientific breakthrough at Queen's University Belfast offers fresh hope to millions of couples suffering from unexplained infertility.

In a study of 239 couples with that diagnosis, researchers found that in 80% of cases, the men had high sperm DNA damage.

They can now be fast tracked to the appropriate treatment for that specific problem.

Every year, about 50,000 couples in the UK require fertility treatment.

These findings will save them time, money and heartache, Queen's scientists said.

Professor Sheena Lewis from the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen's, said this was "a huge finding".

She said it was a breakthrough rather than a cure, but that it offered "a way to fertility".

"For almost one third of couples, until now, there has been no obvious cause for infertility and these couples are given the diagnosis of 'unexplained infertility'," she said.

"These couples often invest a lot of time and money in fertility treatments like intra-uterine insemination which are unlikely to be successful.

"In our study, we have now had a breakthrough which explains the cause of infertility for many of those couples.

"Now that we have found the cause of infertility for these couples, suitable treatments can be tailored for them which will direct them straight to the best treatment and increase their chances of having a baby."

Professor Lewis said a million couples across the world were being investigated for infertility every year.

Image caption Professor Sheena Lewis said this was a "huge finding"

"This will save them time, it will save them money and it will save them the heartache of failed fertility treatments," she said.

"Nothing is a guarantee but it will give them a better chance."

The study also has a second major finding. It is the first study to show that the chances of having a baby after IVF is closely related to the amount of DNA damage a man has in each of his sperm.

The university is also working through Lewis Fertility Testing to make the test available to anyone who needs it.

The test is also being trialled in China.

Professor Lewis said the breakthrough was a result of local talent and was having a global impact.

However, Professor Christopher Barratt, professor of reproductive Medicine at the University of Dundee said that most clinics would not test for high sperm damage because of uncertainty over what to do with the results.

He also pointed out that although high sperm damage was found in the majority of couples, it may not be the only cause of their fertility problems.

"Whether this type of testing predicts which treatment you should is not yet clear.

"The question is whether this type of testing is going to help and that is where the evidence needs to be stronger."

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