By Mark Waghorn via SWNS
A pill that boosts men's fertility could be on the horizon, according to new research.
Scientists have identified a protein that helps sperm hook up with an egg.
Dubbed MAIA after the Greek goddess of motherhood, it helps draw the reproductive cells in.
The discovery opens the door to an anti-infertility drug and a male oral contraceptive that targets the chemical, increasing or lowering levels.
An estimated five million couples in the United States are dealing with infertility issues.
Rising rates of obesity have been blamed for the problem, along with environmental chemicals.
Lead investigator Professor Harry Moore said: "Infertility is unexplained in more than half of those who struggle to conceive naturally."
"What we know about fertility in humans has been severely limited by ethical concerns and the lack of eggs for research."
Fertilization takes place when a sperm and egg cell recognize each other and fuse to form an embryo. But how they do it had remained a mystery.
The Sheffield University team used a pioneering method that mimicked the fertilization process. They found MAIA is key to sperm fusing with the egg's interior or cytoplasm.
Prof Moore said: "The ingenious technique which enabled us to identify the MAIA protein will not only allow scientists to better understand the mechanisms of human fertility but will pave the way for novel ways to treat infertility and revolutionize the design of future contraceptives."
Working with colleagues across the world, the researchers created artificial eggs using thousands of beads.
Each had a different piece of protein, or peptide, on its outer later. During incubation, only a small number had sperm attached.
After several painstaking rounds of removal, they were eventually left with those corresponding to one particular compound - MAIA. Sperm bound to all of these beads.
The MAIA gene was then inserted into human cells grown in Petri dishes. They became receptive to sperm in exactly the same way as during natural fertilization.
The study in the journal Science Advances shows the protein is responsible for drawing sperm into the egg. It could confirm the idea some sperm are not compatible with some eggs.
The researchers now plan to explore whether sperm from different individuals bind to the protein differently.
On average a man produces between 80 and 300 million sperm each time he ejaculates.
It is literally a race for life when they swim towards egg cells to fertilize them - and MAIA is the crucial component.
Despite that, more than 60 percent of issues are related to poor sperm - so it is important to keep them healthy. About one in five under 35s have a low sperm count.
Co-author Prof Allan Pacey said: "This discovery of the MAIA protein is a major step forward in how we understand the process of human fertilization.
"It would have been almost impossible to discover without the use of the artificial beads to replicate the surface of human eggs as we simply wouldn't have been able to get enough eggs to do the experiment. A classic case of thinking out of the box."
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