TTU invention to help millions of infertile couples

Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 10:13 PM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - It’s estimated that 7 million couples struggle with infertility. In about half the cases, the problem is at least partly an issue with the man. That should be reason enough for the man to provide a semen sample for testing, but that’s where the effort stops for some men who can’t or just won’t do that.

Now, there is a new invention that could change that for millions of couples and it started with a question from a professor to a student at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center.

Dr. Samuel Prien, who has been named a Fellow among the National Academy of Inventors, asked this question to a student in the Obstetrics/Gynecology Department, “Why do we collect semen samples the way we do? We still use the same technology we were using 30 years ago, which is a specimen cup. But that is designed for urine that was never designed to hold a semen sample.”

That became the thesis for Dustie Johnson, a graduate student, who began to redesign the cup based on what she had learned from her professor, Dr. Prien. Holding the specimen cup, he says, “A human semen sample will just barely covered the bottom of this. And that allows it to be exposed to not only the plastic, but it also dries out, it gets cold in a hurry.”

With some help from Dr. Lindsey Penrose, Director of the lab, these three came up with a new kind of cup to store and save the semen in a healthier environment. It looks like a tiny blue thermos. No wonder, Dr. Prien says it has been called the “Texas Tech Yeti” because it is insulated like a yeti with a funnel inside that allows the semen to collect together at the bottom sharing the warmth instead of spreading across plastic where their time was limited.

Dr. Prien says on plastic the sperm sample might last 30 minutes to an hour, but in the new cup, they could survive 48 hours or more. That is a game changer for couples because it gives the man plenty of time to collect his sample in the privacy of his own home and drive it to the lab at Texas Tech for testing.

John Smothers is a Lubbock businessman who knew this was a revolutionary discovery because it was also personal to him. He understands the heartbreak of infertility because he and his wife struggled years ago. He says, “It’s a lot of stress to go through that process. In our case, it was seven years before our first child.” When John heard the researchers were looking for a way to commercialize their new cup, he joined the team.

It was in 2009 that a new company was born called Reproductive Solutions. And so began a decade of research to turn this innovative idea into reality. The little blue cup was named Protex.

Ironically, it was the pandemic that revealed the value of Protex. With more people staying at home, it was suddenly a smart way for men to take a sample at home without exposure to the virus. John says, “That’s one of the things that COVID did help us prove to people was that men can collect at home, they don’t have to do it in the clinic.” It was especially convenient when “home” was somewhere in West Texas since many infertile couples drive for hours to get to a fertility specialist in Lubbock. Protex allowed those couples to keep the sample safe during a long drive to Lubbock.

Today, Texas Tech owns the patent.

Medical clinics from New York to Los Angeles are providing Protex to their patients.

And the four founders at TTUHSC remain shareholders in a company that is exploding with interest and looking to grow internationally.

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