As scientists continue to work toward a deeper understanding of COVID-19, an investigator from Magee-Womens Research Institute is focusing on a question that could have a long-term impact on survivors: how does the coronavirus affect male fertility?
Dr. Miguel Brieño-Enríquez, who specializes in infertility research for both men and women, was inspired to pursue the project after reading a paper that found inflammation in the testes and affliction of sperm-producing cells in men with the SARS virus. Reasoning that COVID-19 might produce a similar effect, he decided to investigate. During the first days of the pandemic, he started searching for partners around the world to locate testes samples from COVID-19 patients. He finally found a group in Oklahoma that agreed to share its samples. Now, with the support of a grant from Ferring Pharmaceuticals, he is working to expand this collaboration to other groups in Spain and Germany.
The initial observations revealed that the virus is inducing DNA damage and cellular death in different germ cell populations. Dr. Brieño-Enríquez and his group are now trying to determine if there is a hosting cell within the testes, which could impact sperm production.
Currently, all published studies are based on samples from cadavers, he notes. “In fact, we don’t know what could happen with survivors,” he says, though he notes that some viruses – mumps, for example – are associated with a higher risk of male infertility.
“In the future we want to analyze if this acute effect will impact the long-term fertility,” says Dr. Brieño-Enríquez. “But baby steps: The first thing is to show that something is happening there … this will be the first stone in the foundation.”
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