Study findings could lead to new clinical laboratory testing biomarkers designed to assess for male infertility
Clinical laboratories are increasingly performing tests that have as their biomarkers the DNA and enzymes found in human microbiota. And microbiologists and epidemiologists know that like other environments within the human body, semen has its own microbiome. Now, a study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that the health of semen microbiome may be linked to male infertility.
The UCLA researchers discovered a small group of microorganisms within semen that may impair the sperm’s motility (its ability to swim) and affect fertility.
A total of 73 individuals were included in the study. About half of the subjects were fertile and already had children, while the remaining men were under consultation for fertility issues.
“These are people who have been trying to get pregnant with their partner, and they’ve been unsuccessful,” Sriram Eleswarapu, MD, PhD, a urologist at UCLA and co-author of the study, told Scientific American. “This latter group’s semen samples had a lower sperm count or motility, both of which can contribute to infertility.”
“There is much more to explore regarding the microbiome and its connection to male infertility,” said Vadim Osadchiy, MD (above), a resident in the Department of Urology at UCLA and lead author of the study, in a UCLA news release. “However, these findings provide valuable insights that can lead us in the right direction for a deeper understanding of this correlation.” Might it also lead to new biomarkers for clinical laboratory testing for male infertility? (Photo copyright: UCLA.)
Genetic Sequencing Used to Identify Bacteria in Semen Microbiome
Most of the microbes present in the semen microbiome originate in the glands of the male upper reproductive tract, including the testes, seminal vesicles and prostate, and contribute various components to semen. “Drifter” bacteria that comes from urine and the urethra can also accumulate in the fluid during ejaculation. Microbes from an individual’s blood, or his partner’s, may also aggregate in semen. It is unknown how these bacteria might affect health.
“I would assume that there are bacteria that are net beneficial, that maybe secrete certain kinds of cytokines or chemicals that improve the fertility milieu for a person, and then there are likely many that have negative side effects,” Eleswarapu told Scientific American.
The scientists used genetic sequencing to identify different bacteria species present within the semen microbiome. They found five species that were common among all the study participants. But men with more of the microbe Lactobacillus iners (L. iners) were likelier to have impaired sperm motility and experience fertility issues.
This discovery was of special interest to the team because L. iners is commonly found in the vaginal microbiome. In females, high levels of L. iners are associated with bacterial vaginosis and have been linked to infertility in women. This is the first study that found a negative association between L. iners and male fertility.
The researchers plan to investigate specific molecules and proteins contained in the bacteria to find out whether they slow down sperm in a clinical laboratory situation.
“If we can identify how they exert that influence, then we have some drug targets,” Eleswarapu noted.
According to the federal National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), “one-third of infertility cases are caused by male reproductive issues, one-third by female reproductive issues, and the remaining one-third by both male and female reproductive issues or unknown factors.” Thus, learning more about how the semen microbiome may be involved in infertility could aid in the development of drugs that target specific bacteria.
“Our research aligns with evidence from smaller studies and will pave the way for future, more comprehensive investigations to unravel the complex relationship between the semen microbiome and fertility,” said urologist Vadim Osadchiy, MD, a resident in the Department of Urology at UCLA and lead author of the study, in a UCLA news release.
More research is needed. For example, it’s unclear if there are any links between the health of semen microbiome and other microbiomes that exist in the body, such as the gut microbiome, that cause infertility. Nevertheless, this research could lead to new biomarkers for clinical laboratory testing to help couples who are experiencing fertility issues.
In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC distributed faulty SARS-CoV-2 test kits to public health laboratories (PHLs), delaying the response to the outbreak at a critical juncture. That failure was widely publicized at the time. But within the past year, two reports have provided a more detailed look at the shortcomings that led to the snafu.
“We identified weaknesses in CDC’s COVID-19 test kit development processes and the agencywide laboratory quality processes that may have contributed to the failure of the initial COVID-19 test kits,” the OIG stated in its report.
Prior to the outbreak, the agency had internal documents that were supposed to provide guidance for how to respond to public health emergencies. However, “these documents do not address the development of a test kit,” the OIG stated.
“If the CDC can’t change, [its] importance in health in the nation will decline,” said microbiologist Jill Taylor, PhD (above), Senior Adviser for the Association of Public Health Laboratories in Washington, DC. “The coordination of public health emergency responses in the nation will be worse off.” Clinical laboratories that were blocked from developing their own SARS-CoV-2 test during the pandemic would certainly agree. (Photo copyright: Columbia University.)
Problems at the CDC’s RVD Lab
Much of the OIG’s report focused on the CDC’s Respiratory Virus Diagnostic (RVD) lab which was part of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). The RVD lab had primary responsibility for developing, producing, and distributing the test kits. Because it was focused on research, it “was not set up to develop and manufacture test kits and therefore had no policies and procedures for developing and manufacturing test kits,” the report stated.
The RVD lab also lacked the staff and funding to handle test kit development in a public health emergency, the report stated. As a result, “the lead scientist not only managed but also participated in all test kit development processes,” the report stated. “In addition, when the initial test kit failed at some PHLs, the lead scientist was also responsible for troubleshooting and correcting the problem.”
“RVD Lab, which was under pressure to quickly create a test kit for the emerging health threat, insisted that CORE Lab deviate from its usual practices of segregating these two activities and fulfill orders for both reagents and viral material,” the report stated.
This increased the risk of contamination, the report said. An analysis by CDC scientists “did not determine whether a process error or contamination was at fault for the test kit failure; however, based on our interviews with CDC personnel, contamination could not be ruled out,” the report stated.
The report also cited the CDC’s lack of standardized systems for quality control and management of laboratory documents. Labs involved in test kit development used two different incompatible systems for tracking and managing documents, “resulting in staff being unable to distinguish between draft, obsolete, and current versions of laboratory procedures and forms.”
Outside Experts Weigh In
The OIG report followed an earlier review by the CDC’s Laboratory Workgroup (LW), which consists of 12 outside experts, including academics, clinical laboratory directors, state public health laboratory directors, and a science advisor from the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Members were appointed by the CDC Advisory Committee to the Director.
This group cited four major issues:
Lack of adequate planning: For the “rapid development, validation, manufacture, and distribution of a test for a novel pathogen.”
Ineffective governance: Three labs—the RVD Lab, CORE Lab, and Reagent and Diagnostic Services Branch—were involved in test kit development and manufacturing. “At no point, however, were these three laboratories brought together under unified leadership to develop the SARS-CoV-2 test,” the report stated.
Poor quality control and oversight: “Essentially, at the start of the pandemic, infectious disease clinical laboratories at CDC were not held to the same quality and regulatory standards that equivalent high-complexity public health, clinical and commercial reference laboratories in the United States are held,” the report stated.
Poor test design processes: The report noted that the test kit had three probes designed to bind to different parts of the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid gene. The first two—N1 (topology) and N2 (intracellular localization)—were designed to match SARS-CoV-2 specifically, whereas the third—N3 (functions of the protein)—was designed to match all Sarbecoviruses, the family that includes SARS-CoV-2 as well as the coronavirus responsible for the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.
The N1 probe was found to be contaminated, the group’s report stated, while the N3 probe was poorly designed. The report questioned the decision to include the N3 probe, which was not included in European tests.
Also lacking were “clearly defined pass/fail threshold criteria for test validation,” the report stated.
Advice to the CDC
Both reports made recommendations for changes at the CDC, but the LW’s were more far-reaching. For example, it advised the agency to establish a senior leader position “with major responsibility and authority for laboratories at the agency.” This individual would oversee a new Center that would “focus on clinical laboratory quality, laboratory safety, workforce training, readiness and response, and manufacturing.”
In addition, the CDC should consolidate its clinical diagnostic laboratories, the report advised, and “laboratories that follow a clinical quality management system should have separate technical staff and space from those that do not follow such a system, such as certain research laboratories.”
The report also called for collaboration with “high functioning public health laboratories, hospital and academic laboratories, and commercial reference laboratories.” For example, collaborating on test design and development “should eliminate the risk of a single point of failure for test design and validation,” the LW suggested.
CBS News reported in August that the CDC had already begun implementing some of the group’s suggestions, including agencywide quality standards and better coordination with state labs.
However, “recommendations for the agency to physically separate its clinical laboratories from its research laboratories, or to train researchers to uphold new quality standards, will be heavy lifts because they require continuous funding,” CBS News reported, citing an interview with Jim Pirkle, MD, PhD, Director, Division of Laboratory Sciences, National Center for Environmental Health, at the CDC.
By emphasizing HPV vaccinations while having clinical laboratories continue to perform Pap smears, Australia’s rate of cervical cancer has dropped notably
There is currently a global push to completely eradicate cervical cancer and Australia is leading the way with increased funding. It is also focusing on hard-to-reach and underserved populations. Australia is hoping to be first in the world to accomplish this feat by 2035.
For a number of decades, the Pap smear has been the primary screening tool for cervical cancer, as most pathologists and clinical laboratory managers know. However, today it plays a lesser role due to the effectiveness of HPV (human papillomavirus) diagnostic testing, which was put into cervical cancer screening guidelines in 2004.
Then came the first HPV vaccine in 2006. Australia was one of the first nations to implement HPV vaccination programs. By 2010, Australia was working to vaccinate every child. Now, 14 years later, the pool of adults vaccinated against HPV in that nation is causing the rates of cervical cancer to fall.
As the country continues to funnel resources into hitting a zero cancer status, the additional drive will “connect Australia’s world-leading cervical cancer expertise with governments across the region to get HPV vaccine programs up and running, expand screening and treatment, and build health workforce capacity,” said Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs office in a press release.
“Australia has always punched above its weight when it comes to cervical cancer, and now Australia is on track to be the first country in the world to eliminate this deadly disease,” said Hon Ged Kearney, MP, RN (above), Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care and a member of the government’s House of Representatives, in a press release. “By supporting the Pacific and Southeast Asia region [to] eliminate cervical cancer, we are another step closer to ridding the world of this disease.” Clinical laboratories and cytopathologists may soon see less reliance on Pap smears for screening and a shift toward HPV vaccinations to lower the rate of cervical cancer in the US as well. (Photo copyright: Australian Labor Party.)
Reaching a wider audience is a large part of Australia’s focus.
“One of my priorities is to address inequities in our health system. I want to make sure that everyone can get access to screening—and all healthcare—no matter where [they] live,” Kearney added. Among the populations sought are First Nations, LGBTIQA+, disabled individuals, and those living away from large cities.
“$8.3 million has been allocated to implement innovate screening models to support such communities,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs office noted in the press release.
Meeting people where they are, and reaching underserved populations, can make a huge difference, especially considering how cervical cancer affects these people. “First Nations women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and face significant barriers to participating in cervical screening compared to non-indigenous women,” the press release notes.
“These tests allow privacy and help to break down barriers for thousands of people who have never screened—including women who have experienced sexual violence, LGBTIQA+ people, and culturally and linguistically diverse and First Nations communities,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs office stated.
There is hope that the push will cause a great shift to other underserved communities as well.
“A quarter of global cervical cancer cases occur in our region, the Indo-Pacific. Tragically, in the Pacific, women are dying at up to 13 times the rate of women in Australia,” said Penny Wong, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the press release.
How the US Fares in Cervical Cancer Vaccinations
Australia’s vaccination rates far exceed those in the United States. The US government currently recommends HPV vaccination between the ages of 11-12 years old, though it could be administered starting at age nine.
“HPV vaccination is recommended for all persons through age 26 years who were not adequately vaccinated earlier,” the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports.
For years the standard focus for cervical cancer screening has been on the Pap smear. Data show the US lags behind many countries on the rate of HPV vaccination. NCI data show that, as of 2021, in the US just 58.5% of 13-15 year-olds “had received two or three doses of HPV vaccine as recommended,” NCI reported.
With the US’s standard of care still focused on the Pap smear, patients are beginning their cervical cancer prevention journey at a later age. This is because the preliminary age to get a Pap smear in the US is 21 years old, with follow-up exams every three years, the NCI reported.
Even those in this country who are sexually active are not recommended to get screening earlier than 21.
The NCI recommends HPV testing every five years starting at age 30 until 65, with Pap tests every three years.
Clinical laboratories may soon find that, while the US has been slower to get on board with HPV vaccinations, trends in other nations indicate that this may soon change. The reliance that was once placed on the Pap smears prior to 2000 will likely give way to HPV vaccinations at ages and vaccination rates that mirror programs in countries like Australia—where marked reductions in the rate of cervical cancer demonstrate the effectiveness of a successful HPV vaccination program.
Immunotherapy device could also enable clinical laboratories to receive in vivo biomarker data wirelessly
Researchers from Rice University in Houston and seven other states in the US are working on a new oncotherapy sense-and-respond implant that could dramatically improve cancer outcomes. Called Targeted Hybrid Oncotherapeutic Regulation (THOR), the technology is intended primarily for the delivery of therapeutic drugs by monitoring specific cancer biomarkers in vivo.
It’s not a far stretch to envision future versions of the THOR platform also being used diagnostically to measure biomarker data and transmit it wirelessly to clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists.
ARPH-A is a federal funding agency that was established in 2022 to support the development of high-impact research to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs. THOR is the second program to receive funding under its inaugural Open Broad Agency Announcement solicitation for research proposals.
“By integrating a self-regulated circuit, the THOR technology can adjust the dose of immunotherapy reagents based on a patient’s responses,” said Weiyi Peng, MD, PhD (above), Assistant Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston and co-principal investigator on the research, in a UH press release. “With this new feature, THOR is expected to achieve better efficacy and minimize immune-related toxicity. We hope this personalized immunotherapy will revolutionize treatments for patients with peritoneal cancers that affect the liver, lungs, and other organs.” If anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratories could receive biometric data from the THOR device, that would be a boon to cancer diagnostics. (Photo copyright: University of Houston.)
Antibody Therapy on Demand
Omid Veiseh, PhD, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and principal investigator on the project, described the THOR device as a “living drug factory” inside the body. The device is a rod-like gadget that contains onboard electronics and a wireless rechargeable battery. It is three inches long and has a miniaturized bioreactor that contains human epithelial cells that have been engineered to produce immune modulating therapies.
“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags, and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” said Veiseh in a Rice University press release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump.
But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”
The team believes the THOR device will have the ability to monitor biomarkers and produce an antibody on demand that will trigger the immune system to fight cancer locally. They hope the sensor within THOR will be able to monitor biomarkers of toxicity for the purpose of fine-tuning therapies to a patient immediately in response to signals from a tumor.
“Today, cancer is treated a bit like a static disease, which it’s not,” Veiseh said. “Clinicians administer a therapy and then wait four to six weeks to do radiological measurements to see if the therapy is working. You lose quite a lot of time if it’s not the right therapy. The tumor may have evolved into a more aggressive form.”
The THOR device lasts 60 days and can be removed after that time. It is designed to educate the immune system to recognize a cancer and prevent it from recurring. If the cancer is not fully eradicated after the first implantation, the patient can be implanted with THOR again.
Use of AI in THOR Therapy
The researchers plan to spend the next two and a half years building prototypes of the THOR device, testing them in rodents, and refining the list of biomarkers to be utilized in the device. Then, they intend to take an additional year to establish protocols for the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) good manufacturing practices requirements, and to test the final prototype on large animals. The researchers estimate the first human clinical trials for the device will begin in about four years.
The group is starting with ovarian cancer because research in this area is lacking and it will provide the opportunity for THOR to activate the immune system against ovarian cancer, which is typically challenging to fight with immunotherapy approaches. If successful in ovarian cancer, the researchers hope to test THOR in other cancers that metastasize within the abdomen, such as:
All control and decision-making will initially be performed by a healthcare provider based on signals transmitted by THOR using a computer or smartphone. However, Veiseh sees the device ultimately being powered by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that could independently make therapeutic decisions.
“As we treat more and more patients [with THOR], the devices are going to learn what type of biomarker readout better predicts efficacy and toxicity and make adjustments based on that,” he predicted. “Between the information you have from the first patient versus the millionth patient you treat, the algorithm is just going to get better and better.”
In addition to UH and Rice University, scientists working on the project come from several institutions, including:
More research and clinical trials are needed before THOR can be used in the clinical treatment of cancer patients. If the device reaches the commercialization stage, Veiseh plans to either form a new company or license the technology to an existing company for further development.
“We know that the further we advance it in terms of getting that human data, the more likely it is that this could then be transferred to another entity,” he told Precision Medicine Online.
Pathologists and clinical laboratories will want to monitor the progress of the THOR technology’s ability to sense changes in cancer biomarkers and deliver controlled dosages of antibiotic treatments.
New artificial intelligence model agrees with interpretations of human medical technologists and microbiologists with extraordinary accuracy
Microbiology laboratories will be interested in news from Brescia University in Italy, where researchers reportedly have developed a deep learning model that can visually identify and analyze bacterial species in culture plates with a high level of agreement with interpretations made by medical technologists.
They initially trained and tested the system to digitally identify pathogens associated with urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are the source for a large volume of clinical laboratory microbiological testing.
In their Nature paper, the researchers explained that microbiologists use conventional methods to visually examine culture plates that contain bacterial colonies. The scientists hypothesize which species of bacteria are present, after which they test their hypothesis “by regrowing samples from each colony separately and then employing mass spectroscopy techniques,” to confirm their hypotheses.
However, DeepColony—which was designed for use with clinical laboratory automation systems—looks at high-resolution digital scans of cultured plates and attempts to identify the bacterial strains and analyze them in much the same way a microbiologist would. For example, it can identify species based on their appearance and determine which colonies are suitable for analysis, the researchers explained.
“Working on a large stream of clinical data, and a complete set of 32 pathogens, the proposed system is capable of effectively assisting plate interpretation with a surprising degree of accuracy in the widespread and demanding framework of urinary tract infections,” the study authors wrote. “Moreover, thanks to the rich species-related generated information, DeepColony can be used for developing trustworthy clinical decision support services in laboratory automation ecosystems from local to global scale.”
“Compared to the most common solutions based on single convolutional neural networks (CNN), multi-network architectures are attractive in our case because of their ability to fit into contexts where decision-making processes are stratified into a complex structure,” wrote the study’s lead author Alberto Signoroni, PhD (above), Associate Professor of Computer Science, University of Brescia, and his researcher team in their Nature paper. “The system must be designed to generate useful and easily interpretable information and to support expert decisions according to safety-by-design and human-in-the-loop policies, aiming at achieving cost-effectiveness and skill-empowerment respectively.” Microbiologists and clinical laboratory managers will want to follow the further development of this technology. (Photo copyright: University of Brescia.)
How Hierarchical AI Works
Writing in LinkedIn, patent attorney and self-described technology expert David Cain, JD, of Hauptman Ham, LLP, explained that hierarchical AI systems “are structured in layers, each with its own distinct role yet interconnected in a way that forms a cohesive whole. These systems are significant because they mirror the complexity of human decision-making processes, incorporating multiple levels of analysis and action. This multi-tiered approach allows for nuanced problem-solving and decision-making, akin to a seasoned explorer deftly navigating through a multifaceted terrain.”
DeepColony, the researchers wrote, consists of multiple convolutional neural networks (CNNs) that exchange information and cooperate with one another. The system is structured into five levels—labeled 0 through 4—each handling a different part of the analysis:
At level 0, the system determines the number of bacterial colonies and their locations on the plate.
At level 1, the system identifies “good colonies,” meaning those suitable for further identification and analysis.
At level 2, the system assigns each good colony to a bacterial species “based on visual appearance and growth characteristics,” the researchers wrote, referring to the determination as being “pathogen aware, similarity agnostic.”
The CNN used at this stage was trained by using images of 26,213 isolated colonies comprising 32 bacterial species, the researchers wrote in their paper. Most came from clinical laboratories, but some were obtained from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), a repository of biological materials and information resources available to researchers.
At level 3, the system attempts to improve accuracy by looking at the larger context of the plate. The goal here is to “determine if observed colonies are similar (pure culture) or different (mixed cultures),” the researchers wrote, describing this step as “similarity aware, pathogen agnostic.” This enables the system to recognize variants of the same strain, the researchers noted, and has the effect of reducing the number of strains identified by the system.
At this level, the system uses two “Siamese CNNs,” which were trained with a dataset of 200,000 image pairs.
Then, at level 4, the system “assesses the clinical significance of the entire plate,” the researchers added. Each plate is labeled as:
“Positive” (significant bacterial growth),
“No significant growth” (negative), or
“Contaminated,” meaning it has three or more “different colony morphologies without a particular pathogen that is prevalent over the others,” the researchers wrote.
If a plate is labeled as “positive,” it can be “further evaluated for possible downstream steps,” using MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry or tests to determine susceptibility to antimicrobial measures, the researchers stated.
“This decision-making process takes into account not only the identification results but also adheres to the specific laboratory guidelines to ensure a proper supportive interpretation in the context of use,” the researchers wrote.
Nearly 100% Agreement with Medical Technologists
To gauge DeepColony’s accuracy, the researchers tested it on a dataset of more than 5,000 urine cultures from a US laboratory. They then compared its analyses with those of human medical technologists who had analyzed the same samples.
Agreement was 99.2% for no-growth cultures, 95.6% for positive cultures, and 77.1% for contaminated or mixed growth cultures, the researchers wrote.
The lower agreement for contaminated cultures was due to “a deliberately precautionary behavior, which is related to ‘safety by design’ criteria,” the researchers noted.
Lead study author Alberto Signoroni, PhD, Associate Professor of Computer Science, University of Brescia, wrote in Nature that many of the plates identified by medical technologists as “contaminated” were labeled as “positive” by DeepColony. “We maximized true negatives while allowing for some false positives, so that DeepColony [can] focus on the most relevant or critical cases,” he said.
Will DeepColony replace medical technologists in clinical laboratories any time soon? Not likely. But the Brescia University study indicates the direction AI in healthcare is headed, with high accuracy and increasing speed. The day may not be far off when pathologists and microbiologists regularly employ AI algorithms to diagnose disease.