Sperm separation to improve IVF success rate

By Prue Gildea 

3D illustration of sperm going for the egg

Two University of Melbourne Engineering alumni are giving hope to those planning families; designing a new technique to effectively isolate the best quality sperm.

Professor Sandra Kentish, Head of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Melbourne has joined forces with Alison Coutts, Executive Chairman of Memphasys Ltd, an ASX listed Australian bio-separations company. Coutts was the first woman to graduate with a Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Melbourne in 1977. Professor Kentish followed, graduating in 1983.

Talking about being a trail-blazer, Coutts said, “It was tough at the time being the first and only woman going through, but some of my fellow students and staff, in particular Professor David Wood were strong supporters and that support really helped. I subsequently worked with David on The Engineering Foundation when he had become Dean and we developed some great programs to support women to enter and study engineering. I am happy to see so many women studying chemical engineering and I am also pleased that the School now offers Biomedical Engineering, which was what I always wanted to do”.

It is exciting to be involved in a project where we can improve the lives of many couples, providing a safe and easy approach to improving pregnancy success rates.

Using their academic knowledge and business prowess, the pair have developed a commercially viable sperm separation technique. Their creation, ‘Felix’ uses specific membranes developed to minimise damage to healthy sperm, and avoids the need for centrifuge and ‘swim-up’ techniques which are commonly employed. The healthiest sperm possess a negatively charged cell surface. ‘Felix’ uses a gentle electrical current passed through a sperm sample. Cells are then separated based on charge and size by a series of polymer membranes. The healthiest sperm, those with a negatively charged cell surface can then be collected for IVF processing.

Compared to current IVF sperm processing methods, the ‘Felix’ process takes a total of five rather than 40 minutes, can be used for all quality of samples and can separate out the least DNA-damaged sperm.

Talking about her work in biomedical innovation, Professor Kentish said, “It is exciting to be involved in a project where we can improve the lives of many couples, providing a safe and easy approach to improving pregnancy success rates.”

Currently in the regulatory and development stage, ‘Felix’ is a single use cartridge design. All going to plan, the patented new technology will be available to the global market within two years.