TTU invention to help millions of infertile couples

LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) — An estimated 7 million couples struggle with infertility. In about half of the cases, the problem is at least partly a problem 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 simply can’t or won’t.

Now there’s 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 was made a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, posed 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 used 30 years ago, which is a specimen cup. But it’s designed for urine that was never meant to hold a semen sample.

It became the thesis of graduate student Dustie Johnson, who began to redesign the mug based on what she had learned from her professor, Dr. Prien. Holding the specimen cup, he said, “A human semen sample will barely cover the bottom of this one. And this allows him to be exposed not only to plastic, but also dries out, he cools quickly.

With the help of Dr. Lindsey Penrose, director of the laboratory, these three imagined a new type of cup to store and preserve sperm in a healthier environment. It looks like a little blue thermos. No wonder Dr. Prien says it was called the “Texas Tech Yeti” because it’s insulated like a Yeti with a funnel inside that allows sperm to collect at the bottom sharing heat at the instead of spilling onto the plastic where their time was limited.

Dr Prien says that on plastic the semen sample can last 30 minutes to an hour, but in the new cup they could survive 48 hours or more. This is a game-changer for couples, as it gives the man enough time to collect his sample from the privacy of his own home and drive it to the Texas Tech lab for testing.

John Smothers is a Lubbock businessman who knew this was a groundbreaking discovery because it was so 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 this process. In our case, it was seven years before our first child. When John learned that the researchers were looking for a way to market their new mug, he joined the team.

It was in 2009 that a new company was born called Reproductive Solutions. Thus began a decade of research to bring this innovative idea to fruition. The little blue cup was called 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 exposing themselves to the virus. John says, “That’s one of the things that COVID has helped us prove to people is that men can recover at home, they don’t have to at the clinic.” This was especially handy when “home” was somewhere in West Texas, as many infertile couples drive for hours to get to a fertility specialist in Lubbock. Protex allowed these couples to keep the sample safe for the long journey to Lubbock.

Today, Texas Tech owns the patent.

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

And the four founders of TTUHSC remain shareholders in a company that is exploding with interest and seeking to expand internationally.

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