Each year, millions of couples in the United States and around the world struggle with infertility. One ARCS Utah Scholar Alum is helping make important strides to end that struggle for many. Alex Jafek is part of a research team that has found that it may be possible to improve the chances of conception via new scientific methods.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) including in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) play a critical role in helping infertile couples to initiate pregnancy. According to the CDC, 1.6% of children born in the US this year will have been conceived using ART.
“It is a real privilege as an engineer to work on projects that will have an impact on people and their families,” Jafek said. “ARCS funding allowed me to pursue exciting avenues of research, and the investment in me as a student inspired me to work harder every day.”
At the beginning of every cycle of ART is a semen preparation step in which sperm cells are activated and contaminants are cleaned from the sample. This preparation step is common to ART procedures, and the methodology has been largely unchanged in the last 20 years. But this year, Jafek and his teams have improved the sample preparation step by employing microfluidic techniques. Preliminary data acquired by the group suggest that this could significantly speed up the process, improve the patient experience in the clinic, and could potentially increase the likelihood of pregnancy from a given sample by retaining a higher quantity of motile sperm cells from the original sample.
Based on data acquired by Alex and other members of the Dr. Bruce Gale Lab, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recently awarded a $1M grant to continue to develop the microfluidic technology and move it towards market. This work is done in collaboration with the University of Utah Andrology clinic and the Salt Lake City-based startup Nanonc.