It took Summer Goodson, PhD, nearly a year to find six men genetically qualified to participate in a sperm function study at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) in Kannapolis. Male fertility is still a sensitive subject, said Dr. Goodson, a post-doctoral research associate at the NRI, making it tough to rely on traditional recruitment methods like fliers and advertisements.
But after the NRI partnered with Duke University’s MURDOCK Study in Kannapolis, which has nearly 12,000 participants, Dr. Goodson needed only one day to identify 13 men who have the genetic variant she studies. “The MURDOCK Study has a ready population of men who are interested in clinical studies, and samples that allow me to more easily find men who meet our criteria,” she said. “Our return on investment is much, much higher.”
So far, Dr. Goodson has screened 237 anonymous MURDOCK Study samples for the genetic variation. Once she determined which MURDOCK Study samples met her criteria, Duke contacted those participants to gauge their interest in joining the NRI study. Partnering with the MURDOCK Study made sense and saved time, she said. Both the MURDOCK Study and NRI are based at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC). With more than 400,000 biological samples from 11,715 people enrolled in the Community Registry and Biorepository, Duke’s MURDOCK Study is one of the most unique research initiatives of its kind and offers NCRC scientists like Goodson a more efficient way to find participants for hard-to-recruit clinical studies.
Dr. Goodson is researching the hypothesis that the nutrient betaine, commonly found in foods such as beets and spinach, could improve sperm function in certain men. Her work at the NRI, in partnership with the MURDOCK Study, has the potential to help treat male infertility, a growing problem in the United States.
Starting in 2014, Dr. Goodson began searching for men with the variant in a particular gene that helps metabolize the nutrient choline into betaine in the body. Mice that lack the gene are infertile, and men with the variant have less robust sperm motility. Goodson’s study participants take dietary supplements of betaine to see if it improves their sperm function.
“We really had to cast a wide net to find 10 qualified men,” she said. “After about a year, I couldn’t find enough men, and a couple of people one day said, ‘What about MURDOCK Study samples?’”
In May 2015, Duke provided 150 anonymous DNA samples from the MURDOCK Study biorepository to Dr. Goodson. Her analysis indicated that 13 of the 150 samples, or 8.6 percent, showed the genetic variant, which is consistent with the prevalence in the general population. After that initial success, Duke provided 87 additional MURDOCK Study samples, which yielded seven men with the genetic marker. Two MURDOCK Study participants eventually joined Dr. Goodson’s study. She now has five men enrolled and needs a total of 10.
So began a collaboration that could potentially help thousands of men with the variant, which affects 5 to 9 percent of the general population, conceive a child more easily. Dr. Goodson’s research is a pilot project that will determine whether the NRI moves ahead with a full-scale study and hundreds of participants.
“This could mean hope for some couples having trouble conceiving naturally,” she said. “There are far too few options available to couples affected by male infertility, and this could represent a way to improve fertility using a natural, non-invasive approach.”