Faculty of Medicine

Researching sperm of coronavirus patients

How does Covid-19 effect men's sperm and the next generation’s immune system? UiB researchers will find out by collecting sperm from coronavirus patients.

Man holding a test jar with sperm
The sperm samples were taken at home by Covid-19 patients at a three-month check-up. The samples were treated with preservative and sent by post.

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So far, 50 Covid-19 patients aged 30-40 have sent in samples. Students are next on the list. The plan is initially to call them in again for new samples after 12 months.

The purpose is to see how the infection affects the sperm cells' immune development, and in the longer term, to examine the immune system of the next generation, i.e. their future children.

"Infections train our immune system. We want to know how this happens with Covid-19 and whether it can be of significance to the next generation. This is why we are examining sperm and not just blood," says Professor Cecilie Svanes at the Centre for International Health and the Department of Global Public Health and Primary Care, University of Bergen.

This is the first time such a study has been performed on humans. Covid-19 provides a new and unique opportunity to research trained immunity and potentially how it affects the next generation. Svanes is leading the study together with Professor Rebecca Cox at the Influenza Centre and Clinical Department 2, UiB.

Infections train the immune system

All kinds of infections stimulate reactions in our immune system. The question is whether Covid-19 trains the immune system in a good or bad way.

"Previous testing on animals have shown that infections can affect a future generation’s immune system in both a negative and a positive way," Svanes says.

For example infections by micro-worms, so-called helminths, were found to have a positive effect on mouse offspring. Sepsis, on the other hand, had a negative effect on the next generation of mice.

In the study, the researchers are looking for so-called epigenetic changes, which relate to how the genetic material should be read and which parts are used and built. The researchers are studying the messenger RNA, which translates the DNA to proteins.

"If one compares the hereditary material with a cookbook, epigenetics is about which of the recipes are to be read. We believe that an infection can affect this process", Svanes explains.

Should maybe wait to have children

The researchers cannot wait for the Covid-19 patients to have children, and then examine the children. They study and compare sperm and blood from the patients with that taken from a large control group without Covid-19.

The researchers study a control group are participants from the European RHINESSA-study, where the participants from seven different countries have been followed over 20 years. In this comprehensive database, researchers have examined how lung health, allergies and associated diseases have evolved and changed over time.

"If we find considerable negative changes in sperm, there is a possibility that we will advise people to wait with having children, for, for example, one year after a Covid-19 infection," says Cecilie Svanes.