When Branden Lischner was 18, he got testicular cancer. Between surgery and radiation, which can cause infertility, he saved a sperm sample. But he was so removed from the idea of fatherhood that he soon stopped paying for his banked sperm. Then, in 2013, shortly after he got married, his cancer came back. Lischner only wanted to worry about the surgery to remove his second testicle, but his urologist pushed him to take the time to store sperm.
Lischner saved three samples. On the way into the operating room, the urologist asked if maybe he’d try once more. By then, the insistence was annoying. But four years later, Lischner and his wife credit the doctor with giving them the family they didn’t know they wanted.
On average, men produce between 200 and 500 million sperm per ejaculate, although only a fraction of them reach the uterus. Lischner had only 13 sperm to work with. Joseph Sanfilippo, the director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, estimates Lischner’s wife had about a one in 100,000 chance of getting pregnant. It really shouldn’t have worked. But it did.
While the Lischners got extremely lucky, researchers are now working on a new treatment that could help men like Lischner who didn’t save a sample before radiation, or even prepubescent boys who develop cancer and have no sperm to save. This experimental technique takes a sample of testicular tissue and turns sperm precursor cells into actual sperm cells. Put back in the testes, these sperm multiply, repairing normal sperm production. This holds the promise of allowing men who lose fertility through cancer treatment to have biological children not just in a lab, but the old-fashioned way.