Sperm Banks


Dr. Jerome K. Sherman holds frozen sperm for future use. Sherman discovered the method of successfully freezing and thawing sperm that made sperm banks possible.
Dr. Jerome K. Sherman holds frozen sperm for future use. Sherman discovered the method of successfully freezing and thawing sperm that made sperm banks possible.
Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Some people find they need help conceiving. They struggle with sterility, decreased fertility or one of the many other causes that make conception difficult. Sperm banks, also known as cryobanks, are facilities that offer solutions to male infertility. Sperm banks collect and store sperm and offer andrology laboratory services such as semen analysis, frozen donor sperm services and long-term sperm storage. There are two main motives that drive donors:

  1. Donations from fertile men who wish to preserve their reproductive options. Men often bank sperm for future use when facing surgery, cancer treatment, vasectomy, gender reassignment or a low sperm count (oligozoospermia). Similarly, men who work in occupations that put their fertility at risk -- like athletes, soldiers or men who work with environmental pollutants -- often use sperm banks.
  1. Donations from men who contribute for altruistic or financial reasons. Donor sperm helps infertile couples or single parents conceive.

The use of donor sperm for human conception can be traced back to the 18th century, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that efforts to freeze, store and thaw sperm began to materialize. In 1949, scientists discovered a technique for freezing semen with glycerol, a method that proved less likely to injure sperm [source: California Cryobank].

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B­ut it was Jerome K. Sherman's work in cryobiology, the study of organisms and cells at sub-zero temperatures, that took earlier scientific efforts to new levels. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa in the early 1950s, Sherman's research led him to a method of successfully freezing and thawing sperm. In 1953, he founded the world's first sperm bank, and it was from that pioneering bank that the first human birth from cryopreserved sperm was recorded [source: University of Iowa]. However, it took two more decades for the idea of sperm banks to become culturally acceptable [source: California Cryobank].

If you think it's hard to get into an Ivy League school, consider that many sperm banks boast donor acceptance rates that are lower than Harvard or Yale -- which each accept less than 10 percent of applicants. Read on to learn about the strict donation criteria.

Sperm Donors

A technician freezes sperm for use in artificial insemination.
A technician freezes sperm for use in artificial insemination.
Imagemore Co., Ltd./Getty Images

Becoming an altruistic sperm donor requires more than the ability to provide a specimen. Donor evaluation varies slightly from bank to bank, but usually consists of an application, an initial appointment, test samples and an in-depth screening process.

Men of all ethnicities and backgrounds are accepted as donors. Candidates must meet these basic application requirements:

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  • Men must be at least 18 years of age and less than 40 years old
  • They must be able to make a commitment to the program (usually six months to one year)
  • They should be able to provide their family's medical history (usually back to two to three generations)
  • They must have no chronic health problems

Some banks have additional requirements. Many require a college degree or enrollment in a college degree program. As an additional example of how the screening process can vary, the Sperm Bank of California requires their donor candidates be at least 5 feet 7 inches tall [source: The Sperm Bank of California].

Upon meeting application requirements, candidates provide semen samples. Samples are collected at the sperm bank, and for best results, the candidate must abstain from ejaculating for 48 hours before donating. If each sample shows a high sperm count, the candidate is then tested for sexually transmitted and genetic diseases, interviewed and given a medical examination.

Screening is vigorous and takes typically three months to complete. Top sperm banks report acceptance rates of less than 5 percent of candidates. And at the Xytex banking facility in Georgia, less than 1 percent of men who inquire about being a donor make it to the evaluation process.

If accepted, the donor signs a contract committing to the program. As long as a donor participates in a program, he is required to have ongoing health screenings provided by the sperm bank. Donors are paid for each sample that meets the sperm bank's requirements, with rates running from about $75 U.S. to hundreds of dollars per sample.

Donor profiles are made available to potential recipients. These profiles include the donor's medical and family history and sometimes voice clips and childhood and adult photos.

Donors may choose to remain anonymous or have their identities made available to any future offspring through ID Consent or Identity-Release status. Potential recipients are made aware of the donor's status during the selection process.

Anonymous donors are often willing to provide descriptive details about themselves and their family history with the understanding that they will never have direct communication with the recipients of their sperm or future offspring. Anonymous donors have indefinitely sealed records. Some sperm banks will allow anonymous donors the option of becoming ID Consent donors at a later date, if desired.

ID Consent donors agree to allow the sperm bank to release identifying information about themselves to offspring of legal age -- age 18. ID Consent donors aren't required to meet offspring; rather, the program is designed to give offspring a way to learn about their genetic background. Sperm banks don't guarantee that the donor will be found or will be accommodating to offspring. They don't provide locating services.

Donors, as well as recipients, are advised to review any contracts with regard to financial obligations and donor rights with a separate legal counsel [source: American Society for Reproductive Medicine].

But how is sperm collected? Next, we'll explore what sperm banks do and how they're regulated.

Sperm Banks

A sperm lab technician places a specimen in a tank in a New York City bank.
A sperm lab technician places a specimen in a tank in a New York City bank.
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

Sperm banks focus primarily on the collection, screening and supplying of sperm. They also provide a selection process for potential donor recipients. Once a sperm donor is accepted into a program, that donor regularly provides samples. Samples are collected frequently -- every few days to once a week. Donors are asked to abstain from ejaculation -- like they were in the screening process -- for two to seven days for an optimal sperm specimen [source: Virginia IVF and Andrology Center].

Specimen collection takes place either at the sperm bank's laboratory or via a Priority Male Overnight Collection Kit. On-site collection typically happens during the sperm bank's normal business hours. Donors are shown to a private room where they masturbate into a clean, dry container. Priority Male kits include a special sterile container for transport and a pre-paid FedEx shipment label. The donor prepares his specimen and sends the kit to the laboratory with overnight air transportation. Several of the top sperm banks in association with Cryogenic Laboratories Inc. (CLI) use such kits.

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Samples and donors are screened continually for sexually transmitted diseases and genetic issues. Additionally, all donors are screened for cystic fibrosis and undergo chromosome analysis (karyotyping).

Donors of specific ancestries may be screened for:

  • Tay Sachs disease
  • Canavan disease
  • Gaucher disease
  • Bloom syndrome
  • Fanconi-Amemia Type-C
  • Niemann-Pick Type A
  • Mucolipidosis Type IV
  • Familial Dysautonomia
  • Breast and Ovarian Cancer (BRCA-1 and 2) gene mutations
  • Thalassemia
  • Sickle Cell disease and other hemoglobinopathies [source: Fairfax Cryobank]

Since the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s, artificial donor insemination has been performed exclusively with frozen and quarantined sperm. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) recommend that sperm be quarantined for at least six months and retested before use. In order to comply with federal tissue bank licensing regulations, banks don't accept donors who have been exposed to or infected with HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HTLV, syphilis, genital herpes, or genital warts [source: American Society for Reproductive Medicine].

There is a set procedure for a recipient who wishes to withdraw specimens from a sperm bank. The recipient should first select a physician familiar with the donor insemination processes. Withdrawals are sent to the designated physician. Fairfax Cryobanks, one of the largest commercial sperm banks in the country, recommends two weeks' notice for ordering a specimen.

For men who choose to bank sperm for future use, costs for storage vary from one bank to another. Storage fees are determined by the number of samples and the length of time banked. Fees can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars and it's important to review all costs before working with any sperm bank, whether donating, storing or selecting.

Is the freezing process harmful to sperm? Next,we'll learn about the pre and post thawing process.

Sperm Cryopreservation and Storage

Judith Hart, age three, was posthumously conceived with donated sperm three months after her father died.
Judith Hart, age three, was posthumously conceived with donated sperm three months after her father died.
Barbara Laing/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tissues and cells, including sperm, may be frozen and stored through a process called cryopreservation. Semen samples are prepared first with a solution that minimizes damage during the freezing and thawing processes. The samples are then placed in vials, sealed and slowly frozen in liquid nitrogen vapor. Frozen samples are stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius (-320 degrees Fahrenheit) [source: Fairfax Cryobank].

Sperm's susceptibility to damage during the freezing and thawing processes varies from donor to donor and between samples. After thawing, samples are tested. They must meet certain quality standards: Post thaw samples must contain a minimum of 20 million motile sperm per milliliter, with no less than 25 percent motility [source: American Society for Reproductive Medicine].

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Previously frozen sperm doesn't live as long inside a woman's uterus as fresh sperm. Thawed sperm lives up to 24 hours while fresh sperm can live for three to five days. The risk of birth defects from conceptions with donated sperm is reportedly no different than the rate with natural conception: 2 to 4 percent [source: American Society for Reproductive Medicine].

Frozen semen seems to have no expiration date as long as the storage environment is well maintained and stable. Specimens may be stored until an individual decides to withdraw sperm for assisted reproductive treatments or the donor decides to end his storage contract. In 2005, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) published a report that several women had normal pregnancies and births from semen stored for 28 years [source: Xytex].

To learn more about men, sex and in vitro fertilization, look over our list of links on the following page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • 123Donate.com. http://www.123donate.com/
  • Application Process Information. College Admission Info. 2008. http://www.collegeadmissioninfo.com/
  • California Cryobank. http://www.cryobank.com/
  • Cryogenic Laboratories, Inc. http://www.cryolab.com/
  • Cryostorage and Sperm Banking. Virginia IVF and Andrology Center. http://vaivf.com/cryostorage.html
  • The Donor Sibling Registry. http://www.donorsiblingregistry.com/
  • Fairfax Cryobank. http://www.fairfaxcryobank.com/
  • Genetics & IVF Institute. http://www.givf.com/
  • The Sperm Bank of California. http://www.thespermbankofca.org/pages/page.php?pageid=45
  • Third Party Reproduction: A Guide for Patients. American Society for Reproductive Medicine. http://www.asrm.org/Patients/patientbooklets/thirdparty.pdf
  • Xytex Sperm Bank. http://www.xytex.com/patient_dsg.cfm