Huntsman Cancer Institute research could shed light on male infertility, cancer

The Cairns research team. Photo: Huntsman Cancer Institute

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 5, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — New research from the Huntsman Cancer Institute could increase understanding of male infertility and cancer development.

The research, which documents the complex maturation process of human sperm stem cells, was published Thursday in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Previous studies of sperm stem cells have been limited to model systems, including mice. By studying human sperm stem cells, the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) research reveals the process is far more complex in humans than had been previously understood.

Using genome analysis tools, scientists outlined the multistage process that sperm stem cells undergo during their normal development.

“This information yields new insights into how sperm stem cells function and develop under normal circumstances,” said Bradley Cairns, the study’s lead author, in a prepared statement. Cairns is senor director of basic science at HCI, and a professor and chair of oncological sciences at the University of Utah.

“We have built a very important framework we can now use to help us understand what happens when things go wrong, resulting in issues like infertility and cancer in men,” Cairns said.

In the study, scientists examined all of the genes that turn “on” or “off” in any given cell during normal development. Using single cell RNA sequencing analysis, the Cairns lab profiled cells individually, establishing the gene expression profile in human sperm stem cells.

Team member Dr. James Hotaling, assistant professor of surgery at the U, said the knowledge will lead to better understanding.

“Working with my patients with infertility, I have seen how devastating this diagnosis can be,” he said. “This study will help us understand what causes infertility in some cases.”

The results may also have implications for understanding how some cancers arise. Men with infertility are known to be at higher risk for certain cancers including testicular and prostate cancers.

“Our study sheds new light on how genes normally function in sperm stem cells,” Cairns said. “The next steps will be to use this knowledge to better understand what changes happen when sperm stem cells don’t develop normally and instead convert into cancer cells.”

The authors believe the results of the study could lead to better tools for diagnosing and treating patients with male infertility, as well as uncovering the complicated genetic changes that underlie cancers associated with male infertility.

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the University of Utah, and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.


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