Fertility from Sterility
Do you think it is possible to have your own children with absolutely no sperm in the ejaculate?
Why yes. It happens on a daily basis in my practice.
Honestly, the word “sterility” has really lost much of its meaning nowadays with advances in reproductive technology.
The Affairs of Sperm
Azoospermia is the word used to describe the lack of any sperm in the ejaculate. It is a devastating thing for men to hear as they try to conceive. It comes in two forms: as a consequence of blockage in the sperm ducts outside the testis in the setting of normal sperm production in the testicle (i.e. vasectomy) or as a result of poorly functioning testicles and normal, open ducts beyond it. We routinely grab sperm from behind vasectomy sites to use with assisted reproduction to conceive. Finding sperm in men with poor sperm production, termed nonobstructive azoospermia, is a more complex matter.
One way to think about sperm production in men with poorly functioning testicles is to compare it to a mug with coffee in it. Say the mug is filled with ¼ cup of coffee. If you hold shake the mug, you may not see any coffee spill over the side. In this case, you might assume that the mug has no coffee inside. But, if you peer into the mug directly, you will see that there is actually coffee in the mug. Similarly, the testicle makes more sperm (coffee) than is found in the ejaculate (spilling over cup). There exists a threshold of sperm production, over which sperm shows up in the ejaculate and below which it will not. So, now you know the secret of making fathers out of “sterile” men with poorly functioning testicles.
Sperm from a Rock
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. There is one more layer of complexity here. Poorly functioning testicles may not make sperm evenly throughout their substance. In many cases, there are “pockets” or “islands” of sperm within a sea of otherwise empty tissue. Clinically, this makes sperm retrieval more difficult and has pushed this technology to a high art.
To find sperm, fertility specialists use several sophisticated approaches in men with nonobstructive azoospermia. The traditional testis biopsy works about 30% of the time to find sperm and, as a consequence, is no longer the de rigueur technique for this problem. Fine needle aspiration “mapping”, which I invented about 15 years ago, is easily twice as good as a biopsy in finding sperm and much less invasive. Lastly, “microdissection” of the testis another alternative and involves an all-out surgical assault on the testicle to find sperm making it the most invasive approach. The elegance and complication rates for these approaches vary widely, but their intent is the same: to find enough sperm to allow biological fatherhood. Importantly, when expertly performed, these techniques will find sperm in the majority of cases. For the remainder, there is hope as even newer “no touch” scanning technologies are on the horizon…