Inside Rensselaer
* New Research Shows Potential for Male Contraceptive
Platt’s findings provide important clues into the still-mysterious process of capacitation, the process by which sperm acquire the ability to fertilize an egg, including why some otherwise healthy males might encounter fertility issues.
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New Research Shows Potential for  Male Contraceptive
Researchers have known for more than half a century that sperm is able to fertilize an egg only after it has resided for a period of time in the female reproductive tract. Without this specific interaction with the female body, the sperm is incapable of producing offspring. Until now, there was little understanding of what changes occur within the sperm that suddenly allows it to fertilize an egg.

In the Journal of Proteome Research, Mark Platt, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, reveals the molecular-level changes that occur within sperm after it enters the female reproductive tract. His findings provide important clues into the still-mysterious process of capacitation, the process by which sperm acquire the ability to fertilize an egg, including why some otherwise healthy males might encounter fertility issues. His research may also offer insight required to develop an entirely new contraceptive, even a male version of the birth control pill.

“Much has been done to understand capacitation, but with the tools that we have within the lab we can now identify how specific sites on individual proteins are modified during this process,” says Platt. “With this knowledge we can develop a deeper understanding of the molecular mechanisms required to provide sperm with fertilizing competence. Based upon some of our additional work, a few of these sites appear to be essential to carrying out the process of capacitation.”

Phosphorylation can be thought of as a light switch, which can be used to turn on or turn off a step in the chain of reactions, known as a signal transduction cascade, that leads to capacitation. Just like the initial flicking of a light switch quickly moves electricity through the wires to turn on a lamp across the room, phosphorylation provides the initial trigger that moves a cellular signal through the cell that turns “on” its ability to fertilize an egg. According to Platt, by interfering with just a single site of phosphorylation, scientists could entirely switch off the fertilization process. It is this ability that has the strongest potential for the development of a novel contraceptive.

In addition, the research provides important insight into male infertility. “Certain types of male infertility could be caused by a mutation of a single amino acid on a critical protein that prevents the sperm from ever undergoing the capacitation process,” Platt says. “If you could correct that specific mutation or design a drug which mimics phosphorylation on that particular amino acid, for example, you might be able to improve fertility.”

To read the full press release, go to http://news.rpi.edu/ update.do?artcenterkey=2597.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 3, Number 8, September 11, 2009
©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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