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An Automated Robotic Screening System to Accelerate the Introduction of the Male Contraceptive

Robotic Screening

SAFE, effective, reversible, and widely available male contraceptive options are currently limited to condom use only, highlighting an unmet need for the development of further male prophylactics. A novel fully automated robotic screening system has now been designed paving the way towards a fast-track development of a male contraceptive.

The research team led by Prof Chris Barrat and Dr Paul Andrews from the University of Dundee, UK, are investigating methods towards finding a reliable male contraceptive. A critical function of spermatozoa is to travel to the site of fertilisation, thus preventing motility is a critical target. The team screened a comprehensive collection of 1,200 molecules that make up the ReFRAME repurposing library, comprising most molecules that have been approved or undergone clinical development.

A current barrier to drug discovery is the lack of proven targets and the absence of an efficient high-throughput phenotypic screening system. This, combined with the current gaps in knowledge concerning human sperm biology and the key functions they must perform after leaving the male host, has hindered drug discovery efforts.

Therefore, the Dundee research team have developed a robotic miniaturised parallel testing system utilising a fast microscope and image-processing tools able to accurately track the movement of human sperm and further allow the effects of drugs to be measured precisely. Dr Andrews stated that: “This new system speeds up the process of drug hunting several thousand-fold.” He further added: “The dual platform now allows for major drug discovery programmes that address the critical gap in the contraceptive portfolio as well as uncover novel human sperm biology.”

The study discovered several compounds that potently inhibit sperm motility representing novel drug candidates. Prof Barrat announced that: “This is a breakthrough in technology for the area. It allows us for the first time to assess in large numbers how compounds can affect sperm function.” Further research will investigate whether these are suitable for long-term use in males.