MU Reproductive Physiologist Receives NRI Discovery Award
Peter Sutovsky's investigations of sperm function, fertility lead to new tests for both people and livestock
COLUMBIA, MO -- A more definitive test for assessing male infertility could be on the market and available to clinicians as early as the end of 2006, said a University of Missouri reproductive physiologist honored today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We have a working prototype designed and ready to go, and we're on a timeline to have it on the market within 18 to 24 months," said Peter Sutovsky, MU assistant professor of animal sciences and founder of AndroLogika, LLC. "We're currently looking for the best situation for the university, the company and potential partners."
Sutovsky, who joined the MU faculty in 2001, accepted the first National Research Initiative (NRI) Discovery Award from Colien Hefferan, administrator for the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES), during a ceremony in Columbia. The award includes additional research funds of $10,000 and a one-year extension of Sutovsky's three-year project.
In addition to testing fertility in humans, the patented procedure could be a boon to the U.S. livestock industry.
"Dr. Sutovsky's work demonstrates the world-class science that is supported by NRI, and the Discovery Award highlights the impact of that science on agriculture," said Hefferan, who was accompanied by CSREES national program leaders Chavonda Jacobs-Young and Mark Mirando.
"I consider myself still in the early stages of my career, so I was shocked when I received the call," said Sutovsky, who earned his doctorate in reproductive physiology from the Czech Academy of Sciences in Libechov, Czech Republic. "This is very overwhelming. I can't say it was a dream come true because I never even dreamed of winning such an award."
The USDA CSREES established the NRI Discovery Award to recognize outstanding researchers in agriculture who have supported the agency's mission to advance knowledge of agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities. The award also highlights the scientific and economic impacts of NRI-funded projects.
In conventional semen analysis, a sample is sent to a trained technician who visually evaluates sperm appearance and mobility then provides a subjective diagnosis. Sutovsky's test kit, which would be administered at a doctor's office, uncovers abnormalities that may be invisible to technicians.
"The test screens the surface of sperm cells for ubiquitin, a protein that indicates that the sperm is damaged or defective," he said. "This test will allow doctors to diagnose previously unexplained infertility."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 6.1 million women and their partners in the United States, or about 10 percent of the reproductive-aged population, are affected by infertility. About one-third of cases can be attributed to male factors. In about 20 percent of cases, infertility is unexplained.
Sutovsky said that in addition to producing a test kit for humans, AndroLogika would provide a semen testing service for the livestock industry.
The livestock testing, which would be conducted in company labs, would allow stud services to test bulls and boars periodically to ensure that there are no problems with the breeding stock, he said. "It would also give producers peace of mind that they're purchasing a quality product and allow them to increase their reproductive efficiencies."
Research on ubiquitin has led to another discovery that could revolutionize birth control, Sutovsky said.
"We've discovered a reversible way to use the body's immune system to prevent sperm from penetrating the egg's jelly-like protective coat," he said. "If the sperm can't get through that coat, fertilization doesn't occur."
Sutovsky envisions developing an immunocontraceptive vaccination: a woman would be vaccinated and then receive annual "boosters" rather than taking a daily pill. He believes there would be strong demand for such a non-hormonal birth control.
"Predictions vary, but some estimates put the worldwide market for a female-administered, reversible immunocontraceptive at almost $1 billion."
For more information about CSREES and the NRI Discovery Award, visit at www.csrees.usda.gov.
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