A smartphone that can evaluate semen quality sounds like the set-up to a joke. We promise it’s not only real, but a potential game-changer for couples dealing with infertility concerns. Researchers in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital announced today that their smartphone-based semen analyzer can spot abnormal samples with 98 percent accuracy.

The results, published today in Science Translational Medicine, could bring new hope to the estimated 45 million couples and 12 percent of men worldwide who grapple with infertility. Normally, identifying sperm concentration and sperm motility requires submitting semen samples in clinical settings that can prove embarrassing or uncomfortable for men. Developed by Brigham and Women's researchers in conjunction with colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the analyzer lets them test samples in the privacy of their own home, with results available in under five seconds.

Brigham

Here's how it works. The analyzer has a microchip-equipped, microfluidic slide with a disposable tip that's dipped into the semen sample. The slide is then inserted into an optical device that fits over a smartphone camera, which takes video of the sample. The software then analyzes the video to assess sperm concentration and motility, while a wireless scale measures total sperm count. If the results are abnormal (defined by the World Health Organization as sperm concentrations under 15 million sperm/ml and/or motility under 40 percent), the tester can talk to a doctor for potential treatment.

In a study of 350 samples, abnormal samples were correctly identified 98 percent of the time.

The device is also suitable for men who have undergone vasectomies and need to monitor the efficacy of the operation. Eventually, the researchers hope to explore the technology for use with blood and saliva samples. They currently have no timeline for when the device will be commercially available, but they expect to seek Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval following additional tests.