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DIY sperm banking? Some clinics offer at-home kits

A chagrined man with a girlie magazine under his arm, shuffling into a small, clinical-looking room, has helped turn the act of semen collection into a sitcom staple. Now, a few sperm banks are hoping to change that unappealing image by inviting men to skip the office altogether.

On Monday, the Cleveland Clinic launched its “NextGen” sperm banking kit. Potential customers can request the kit, collect the sample “in the comfort of their own home,” as the cliché goes, and then send the kit back by overnight express.

That sounds much less embarrassing, but are American men really crying out for such a service? And while sperm are pretty hearty swimmers in their intended environment, can they really survive the punishment meted out by the UPS guy?

Sperm banking has traditionally been used for just a few reasons: for storing donor sperm for in vitro fertilization (IVF) when a would-be father is infertile, or a woman is single or part of a lesbian couple; to secure a man’s, or a boy’s, fertility before he begins cancer treatments that could kill off his sperm-making ability; men having a vasectomy who want to hedge their bets; and, in rare cases, as a repository for the sperm of men who have just died, or for men about to engage in some dangerous event, like going to war.

Those are pretty limiting reasons, and since sperm banks usually serve a local area, most have never been regarded as much of a profit center. They’ve been more of a necessary adjunct service for IVF providers and cancer centers.       

Now, though, by offering shipping, Ashok Agarwal, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s andrology laboratory and sperm bank said, the market becomes “anywhere in the U.S.” and the customer any man who’s worried about his future fertility for whatever reason.  

To use the NextGen kit, customers call the lab and request it. The lab sends out a box with a specimen cup, sperm preservation media, ice packs, and a return shipping label. The media is stored in the refrigerator, the ice packs in the freezer. A man masturbates, ejaculating into a specimen cup, dumps in the media (essentially sperm food), packs the box with the sample and the ice packs, and sends it off. According to Agarwal, there’s virtually no difference in sperm quality between shipped and locally collected samples.

The andrology lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago also offers an at-home sperm banking kit, which it calls “OverNite Male.” It works about the same way.

The Chicago lab charges $50 for the kit, $150 for cryopreservation, and $275 per year for storage.  The Cleveland Clinic’s program charges $689 for the first banked sample, including the first year of storage, and an annual storage fee of $140 thereafter.

But Cappy Rothman, a pioneering UCLA urologist and the founder of the world’s largest sperm bank, California Cryobank, isn’t so sure either of these is a good idea. 

“It’s almost like gambling,” he declared. “The survivability [of sperm] is poor.” His outfit experimented with such kits, once over a decade ago and again more recently and “we found it unreliable. We did not think the results were good enough to encourage people to do it.”

Dr. Robert Oates, professor of urology at Boston University and president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology, agreed with Agarwal that when everything goes exactly according to plan, the kits can work. But, he said, the creation of such systems “is really about marketing a product” to men who may not need it.    

Of course, the fees and the risk may be worth it if they really do help people preserve their fertility. David Sampson, a spokesmen for the American Cancer Society (ACS), said the organization encourages doctors and patients to discuss fertility before beginning treatments, and, according to the ACS, “sperm banking is an effective way for men who have gone through puberty to store sperm for future use.” It encourages oncologists to offer banking to all men and boys. (Soon, female egg banking – which has recently shown improved results -- may be standard, too.)

But both Oates and Rothman pointed out that the mail-in option ought to be a last resort used mainly by men located in very rural areas, for example, where sperm banking may be unavailable. Most oncology, fertility and urology practices have local systems in place for storing sperm. “Practically every city has sperm banks,” Oates said.

“It would be more prudent for anybody having difficulty finding a sperm bank to go through an IVF center and have the specimen processed [frozen], and sent to the sperm bank of their choice,” Rothman said.  

And as for the idea of banking against risks, Oates believes some facilities seem to be encouraging very unlikely scenarios as a way to drum up business. “Marketing to those in dangerous professions means they’d have to get their testicles shot off,” he said. “I mean, if you do get them shot off, you are going to be happy you banked sperm, but those are very limited numbers of people.”