Office of Post-Doctoral Training



Post-Doctoral Training

School of Graduate Studies

site header
Subscribe to RSS - News

The Shape of Fluid

How microfluidic technologies help overcome male infertility

by Natalia Mukhina

April 2018

Dr. Reza Nosrati enjoys doing a part of research that many other scientists normally find boring. “Just imagine that you developed the initial prototype of a device, but it doesn’t work properly. You need to go back, change the design, and do another type of testing again and again. I like this loop a lot. It is not frustrating for me, but rather encouraging.”

Dr. Nosrati, an NSERC post-doctoral Fellow in Prof. Carlos Escobedo’s group at the Department of Chemical Engineering, focuses on microfluidic technologies to develop innovative tools for a wide range of biomedical research. Microfluidics - both the science and the technology - deals with very small amounts of fluids changing from microliters to picolitres and their behaviour inside micro-channels.

Dr. Nosrati’s specific focus is the application of microfluidics to treat male infertility. Unfortunately, this is a growing global issue. It impacts societies and many families are suffering from the cost and emotional burden associated with infertility problems.

Over the last 40 years, the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), such as in vitro fertilization, fertility medication, intrauterine insemination (IUI), and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), has increased significantly and helped thousands of people worldwide become parents. Paying tribute to the success of ART, Dr. Nosrati notes that bringing more engineering into reproductive medicine will be beneficial: “By learning from how the sperm cell swim, we begin thinking outside the box of traditional treatment methods to come up with new solutions for infertility problems.”

Dr. Nosrati applies microfluidics to analyze and select sperm for male infertility diagnosis and treatment. The human sperm cell has a total length of about 60 microns. The way the flagellum beats to propel the cell in the fluid can be considered a fluid mechanics problem, which is in the realm of microfluidics.

“In such a small scale the way that the cells swim is very different from how we swim in the swimming pool,” explains Dr. Nosrati. “There is no inertia there. As soon as the cell stops moving its flagellum, the cell will stop as well. I first strive to understand that motion and swimming behavior. The next step will be to use this knowledge to develop new therapeutic technologies to help with male infertility.”

When asked about the causes of such a delicate and emotionally painful health condition, Dr. Nosrati lists genetic and environmental factors, as well as smoking, obesity, and sexually transmitted infections. All these aspects deteriorate sperm concentration and quality in males. The traditional diagnostic methods used in the field mostly proceed by exploring cells in the sample and counting their number in clinical labs. “Obviously, there is a lot of anxiety and embarrassment around going to a clinic and providing the sample. As the problem is becoming more and more vital, it is highly important for males to have the option of doing at least the very first diagnostic steps on their own. Just to know what is going on.”

An ongoing project Dr. Nosrati has been involved with since the last year of his PhD is to reproduce some of the clinical methods for male infertility diagnostics in a paper-based device. “It is like a home pregnancy test, which is basically one of the most successful versions of paper-based microfluidic devices. Paper is still very cheap. Most importantly, the paper has the specific capillary nature that can wick the fluid. You don’t need any specific pumping system to handle fluids in the device. After the male applies a sample on this paper-based device, it changes color, indicating how good the sample is.”

In collaboration with research groups from the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Nosrati is trying to make the device more user-friendly and informative by linking it with a mobile phone application. “After test has been done, the cellphone will provide the male with more details and tell him if he must see a clinician. It looks a little fantastic, but we hope to see the device in markets within 5 years at a reasonable price.”

Another project of Dr. Nosrati’s interest deals with developing organotypic microfluidic platforms. Previously, he was looking at how sperm swims in devices made of glass or polymer. “This is far away from the in vivo environment of the human body. The idea of organotypic microfluidic platforms is to take out the actual cells, e.g. those from female fallopian tubes, and then culture them inside the microfluidic device. As a result, we will reproduce an in vivo environment. We will have the actual surface of the female reproductive tract.”

Then, Dr. Nosrati will see how sperm interact with this surface. “These cells have some ciliated surface like a small hair shape. It is thrilling to look closer at the interaction between sperm and these ciliated surfaces. Hopefully, we will have some exciting results out of that soon.” This research is a collaboration with a group in Queen’s Cancer Research Institute. Some cancer patients become infertile after going through anti-cancer treatment. The research aims to help them cope with such a therapy’s side effects.

“I truly believe that it is the interdisciplinary approach that pushes research forward,” argues Dr. Nosrati in conclusion. “Yet, it is not enough just to have the interdisciplinary team, even if it is a perfect one, to succeed. We need to bring into any research the end users’ perspective. A lesson I have learned is that a closer collaboration between clinicians, engineers, and end users is the key to developing well-working devices in my field.”


If old good approaches fail - Innovate your own theory: Dr. Chaimongkol Saengow

Whether you are unfolding your non-slip mat before yoga class, packing your fragile items with bubble wrap, or touching your laptop keyboard, you likely encounter things made from polymers every day. Polymer, a word we hear about a lot, is found in almost every material used in our daily lives. Have you ever thought about how your swimsuit, pen, or plastic water bottle looked before becoming what they are now?

“In general, all plastic things once were a viscous fluid substance. Polymeric materials can be shaped depending on their intended purposes.  Polymer processing mainly consists of a series of operations when the polymer is heated to the molten state, and then this fluid is tailored using the model of the final object,” explained Dr. Chaimongkol Saengow.


IRTG: The Brain in Action

Since it was launched in 2013, the IRTG Brain in Action program has generated more than 50 publications. The program was designed for graduate students, Post-Doctoral fellows, and their supervisors to have the opportunity to collaborate on similar research interests and to provide the ability to learn new techniques from each other.

This year, the retreat featured a full-day workshop on motion capture technology, which was taught at Queen’s Human Mobility Research Centre at Hotel Dieu Hospital. That way, members of the IRTG also had a chance to visit Kingston and explore the Queen’s campus for one day.

The program also offers its graduate students internships in related industries, writing workshops to strengthen literary skills, internet-based seminars, and external speakers from other universities to broaden the knowledge of young scientists and professors alike. It went without saying that all those who attended the retreat were coming out of the week feeling relaxed, accomplished, and with new ideas in hand.