A SCIENTIST who has warned that humans could be facing extinction due to declining male fertility rates is leading the race to cure the problem.

Dr Sarah Martins da Silva is heading up trials at Dundee University on a drug manufactured by AstraZeneca which could become a "game-changing" new treatment for couples struggling to conceive.

Scotland already leads the way in access to IVF treatment and could now also be responsible for developing the first pill to treat male infertility.

At present there are limited options for men, with women bearing the brunt of invasive assisted conception procedures.

The standard treatment is intracytoplasmic sperm injection, where a single sperm is injected into the centre of an egg during the IVF process.

This may result in a healthy baby but does not solve the problem of male infertility, experts say.

READ MORE: Why Scotland's 'gold standard' IVF treatment is the best in the UK 

Scientists have been involving in trials using a drug which was not found to have real benefit for the neurological condition it aimed to treat.

Small scale trials found that poorly performing sperm "responded positively" to the treatment.

Around one in 15 men are affected by fertility problems with the majority affected by low sperm count or other issues such as poor sperm motility. 

Leading the research is Dr Sarah Martins da Silva, who was  named one of the BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 for her work in the field.

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She has previously warned that the human race could face extinction if a 40 to 50% drop in sperm counts levels over the past four or five decades continues.

"As it stands at the moment, there is really nothing you can prescribe to improve male fertility, " said Dr Martins da Silva. "Couples then go through the process of IVF which is very involved and invasive and expensive.

"In Scotland we are quite lucky but across the UK there is wide variation in treatment access.

"My group in Dundee partnered with AstraZeneca looking at a drug that has gone through varying degrees of development for a completely different condition which has some properties that could prevent inflammatory damage to cells which we think is a common reason for male infertility.

"Every cell as it metabolises creates bi-products that can potentially be harmful. What normally happens is that there are naturally occurring anti-oxidants that mop up these potentially highly damaging molecules.

"We think that things like smoking, being obese and exposure to chemicals probably knocks that imbalance out. You also see this in other diseases such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

READ MORE: Couple who won IVF after years of pregnancy heartbreak expecting first child

"The treatment approach (for male infertility) tried to date has been to give more anti-oxidants. There are huge numbers of trials looking at various vitamins and supplements – but the results are very variable and antioxidant treatment not reliably effective.

"This is a real game-changer because it's starting from the other side of that chemical equation by saying what if we stop this happening in the first place.

"The great thing is that sperm are produced all the time so in theory you could take a tablet for a few weeks or months and that could be enough to undo any damage and correct the problem. It could mean that couples don't need to go through IVF at all."

HeraldScotland:

(the drug was created by Covid vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca)

The team are now hoping to launch a larger, randomised controlled trial, to find out if the treatment could work when given to men as a tablet.

The licence for the drug has been bought by UK charity St George Street Capital which has launched a crowdfunded to raise money to finance the trial while Dundee University has also applied for grant funding.

The reasons for declining male fertility are still not well understood, says the fertility expert, but environmental issues are thought to have played a role.

"Over time we have seen that the male age of fathering families has gone up but we don't think age is quite as catastrophic on fertility compared to us ladies.

READ MORE: Mother's 'tears of relief' after Covid vaccine wait amid priority push 

"But I definitely think that over time there are rates of testicular cancer and other things that affect male reproduction that are increasing over time.

"There was a big paper published that showed male sperm counts have fallen by 40-50% over the last five decades. Why that is, we genuinely don't know and that to me is a terrifying scenario.

"If you look around the planet you see pollution and toxins and all kinds of things and it can be no coincidence. As our lives become more electronic as we clutter our planet with many more things...it's probably a combination of thing that is creating the problem."

Dr Martins da Silva will be among the speakers at an online event hosted by the Fertility charity Progress Educational Trust (PET) next Wednesday which will be focussing on Scottish research advances.

"We will be looking at how we can shake up a speciality that needs help, needs research and needs innovation."