The Tommy’s team in Birmingham have reviewed earlier studies to show that damage to the DNA sperm carry can more than double the risk of miscarriage. This is very significant: until now, miscarriage has mostly been thought of as only a female problem. In turn, research has focused only on women, and not men, in trying to understand and prevent miscarriage.
Yet, the impact of damage to sperm’s genetic material isn’t surprising. While most cells can repair damaged DNA, sperm can’t. The egg can – but the worse the damage to the sperm, the more likely it is that when the egg tries to repair it, it does more harm than good. This can lead to genetic problems in the baby, which could increase the risk of miscarriage.
At the moment, not enough research on the topic exists for it to be useful. That’s why Tommy’s is supporting a study looking at how decreasing sperm damage might make miscarriage less likely.
To do this, we need to find out how sperm get damaged in the first place. One way this could happen is if sperm come into contact with something called Reactive Oxygen Species, or ROS. This is called oxidative damage. ROS are very reactive chemicals that are made naturally by the body, but can also come from outside sources like smoking. We will use a new way of testing for oxidative damage in sperm that we hope will be more sensitive than anything that has been done before.
We are currently recruiting men to participate in our study. Firstly, we want to see whether sperm damage is oxidative, and if it makes miscarriage more likely. We are also organising a trial to test whether using antioxidants could prevent miscarriage. Antioxidants counteract the harmful effects of ROS, preventing DNA damage in the sperm. What’s more, they can be taken as dietary supplements, making them a cheap and simple treatment.
This work could give us a new reason for unexplained miscarriages, giving parents the explanations they need, and us the tools to work towards preventing future miscarriages.