Researchers at Oxford University have developed a new way to insert special nanoparticles into sperm. This new technique could someday help doctors discover, diagnose and treat the underlying causes of infertility. Male infertility accounts for about half of all cases of infertility in the United States.

Nanoparticles are extremely small microscopic particles, with at least one dimension measuring less than 100 nanometers. Scientists are discovering new ways to assemble and use nanoparticles in medicine. The small size of nanoparticles allows scientists to insert them into various body cells, including sperm, without interfering with the function of those cells. Nanoparticles are also versatile – scientists have figured out how to create microscopic structures using nanoparticles as building blocks.

In the technique outlined in this study, the scientists use nanoparticles to create a microscopic ‘envelope’ then fill this envelope with compounds that help them indentify, diagnose, and treat the underlying cause of infertility. For this study, the researchers then inserted the nanoparticles envelopes into boar sperm because of its similarity to human sperm. The scientists hope to duplicate their research on human sperm someday – they may even be able to use the method to deliver compounds from sperm to eggs too – to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms behind infertility in men and women.

Scientists have a difficult time studying sperm because of their size, shape, and short lifespan outside the body. Until the development of nanotechnology that uses nanoparticles, researchers engaged in complicated animal studies using methods prone to months of delays. Packaging tracking compounds directly into sperm gives scientists new insight into the source of fertility problems.

About one-third of couples who are trying to have children cannot because of male infertility, according to MedlinePlus, while female infertility accounts for another third. Common causes of male infertility include physical problems with the testicles, obstructions in the duct that carries sperm, hormone imbalances, genetic disorders, history of certain illnesses especially mumps or high fevers. Lifestyle choices and exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides, heavy metals, radioactive material and radiation can cause male infertility.


  1. Barkalina, Natalia, MD, MSc. "Effects of Mesoporous Silica Nanoparticles upon the Function of Mammalian Sperm in Vitro." Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine. N.p., 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
  2. "Male Infertility: MedlinePlus." U.S National Library of Medicine. N.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.