Feeling Fertile

Posted on: 04 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Modern society is placing more pressure on men to remain fertile for longer.

Modern society is placing more pressure on men to remain fertile for longer.

Thoughts of one's fertility generally become less of a concern as men grow older, after all, by the time most men reach fifty they have already fathered a child. But due to the increase in second marriages, women waiting longer before having children and the overall longevity of our lives, how fertile a man is in later life is becoming increasingly important.

So, anyone hoping to boost their fertility will be delighted to hear that scientists believe that a chemical which occurs naturally in the leaves of an African plant could boost men's fertility.

Khat, or Catha edulis, is a plant that has been cultivated for centuries in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Chewing the leaves of the plant releases cathinone, a stimulant that produces feelings of euphoria. Structrually cathinone belongs to a group of chemicals called phenylpropanolamines (PPAs), which are structurally similar to amphetamines and adrenaline.

Until now there have been conflicting reports of the effects of PPAs on male fertility. Amongst people who chew khat leaves there is a belief that it improves a man's sex drive and ability to maintain an erection, but there is a question mark over whether prolonged use might adversely affect the male reproductive system, possibly causing abnormalities in sperm.

Now, researchers at the Centre for Reproduction, Endocrinology and Diabetes at King's College London have studied the effects of PPAs on mouse and human sperm and found the first evidence that they stimulate the final stage of sperm maturation (capacitation) when sperm develop the ability to fertilize an egg. They then maintain the sperm in a potentially fertilizing state for longer, allowing them more time to reach an egg.

Lynn Fraser, Professor of Reproductive Biology at King's College London, believes that these preliminary findings might lead to over-the-counter products that couples could buy to boost their fertility during attempts at natural conception, as well as providing another way to help infertile couples during IVF treatment.

"A number of PPAs related to the compounds we have studied are currently used in prescription and over-the-counter products, such as herbal dietary supplements used for weight loss and treatment of asthma," said Prof Fraser. "We envisage the development of products that could be taken by individuals, either couples who might be having trouble conceiving or even those who have just decided to try to conceive, and who have no obvious problems. PPAs could also be used in IVF clinics as additives to sperm prepared for IVF or artificial insemination."

More research has to be carried out in live animals, administering PPAs and then evaluating effects on the ovaries, the testes and the sperm, before this work can be translated into treatments for people. The fact that Khat is already widely used by humans will however mean that tests for toxicity to humans will not need to be quite so thorough. Good news then for older men hoping for fatherhood.

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