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Kannapolis research institute: Could nutrition affect male infertility?

By Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.
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- UNC Nutrition Research Institute
Summer Goodson, researcher at UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis

Researcher Summer Goodson is used to getting snickers when she tells people she’s studying male infertility.

“It’s expected,” said Goodson, a post-doctoral research associate at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis. “It’s a sensitive subject. But it’s a fascinating subject.”

Goodson is looking into the hypothesis that the nutrient betaine, commonly found in foods such as beets and spinach, could improve sperm function in certain men.

“Our hope is to see improvement in sperm function,” Goodson said. “It may have potential for (treating) male infertility, which is a growing problem in the United States.”

But before we get to the details, let me tell you how she got to this point. Like a lot of things in science, serendipity played a role.

About six years ago, graduate student Amy Johnson was studying brain development in mice at UNC Chapel Hill. She looked at the effect of a particular gene that helps metabolize the nutrient choline into betaine in the body. She deleted that gene in the mice, expecting to discover effects on brain development. Instead, she wound up with male mice that were infertile.

Trying to figure out what was going on, Johnson contacted an expert in reproductive biology at UNC. Through her, she met Goodson, who was working on her doctorate in cell and developmental biology. They worked together, speculating on the reasons for the infertile mice and what further testing should be done.

Eventually, Johnson studied human males with a particular variant in the same gene that was missing in her research mice. The men had similar problems with sperm function. “Their sperm motility was not as robust as that for men who didn’t have the variant,” Goodson said.

Fast forward to 2013. Johnson had moved to another research lab at UNC, and Goodson, who had finished her doctorate, was invited to the Kannapolis campus to speak about her work. While there, she happened to have a conversation with Dr. Steven Zeisel, the nutrition institute’s director and Johnson’s former supervisor.

Zeisel recalled Johnson’s research with the infertile mice. He said she had noticed the mice had low levels of betaine, and when she put that nutritional supplement in their drinking water, their sperm function had improved. Zeisel suggested that giving betaine to human males with the genetic variant might improve their sperm function.

Goodson, who was looking for a job, took on the project. Today, she is looking for male volunteers whose blood she can test. She’ll select those with the genetic variant and give them supplements of betaine to see if it improves their sperm function.

To find 10 research subjects, she needs to screen about 150 men. Volunteers should be age 18 to 60. Contact: 704-250-5035 or email NRI_Fertility@unc.edu. Those final participants will be paid $600 at the end of the project.

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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