STUDY QUESTION: Are early signs of metabolic disorder in late adolescence associated with features of impaired testicular function many years before the majority seek parenthood?
SUMMARY ANSWER: Adolescents with features of metabolic disorder at 17 years, or insulin resistance (IR) at 20 years of age, show impaired testicular function and altered hormone levels compared to those without metabolic disorder.
WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Controversial evidence suggests a recent decline in sperm production potentially linked to environmental influences, but its cause remains unclear. Concomitant increases in obesity and diabetes suggest that lifestyle factors may contribute to this decline in testicular function. Although obesity has been associated with adverse testicular function in some studies, it remains unclear whether poor testicular function merely reflects, or causes, poor metabolic health. If metabolic disorder were present in adolescence, prior to the onset of obesity, this may suggest that metabolic disorder maybe a precursor of impaired testicular function.
STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION: The Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study is a longitudinal study of children born in 1989-1991 who have undergone detailed physical assessments since birth (1454 male infants born). At 17 years of age, 490 boys underwent a hepatic ultrasound examination, serum cytokine assessment (n = 520) and a metabolic assessment (n = 544). A further metabolic assessment was performed at 20 years (n = 608). Testicular assessment was performed at 20 years; 609 had reproductive hormones measured, 404 underwent a testicular ultrasound and 365 produced a semen sample.
PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS: Testicular volume was estimated by ultrasonography, and semen analysis was performed according to World Health Organization guidelines. Concentrations of LH, FSH and inhibin B (inhB) in serum were measured by immunoassay and total testosterone by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. At 17 years of age, a liver ultrasound examination was performed to determine the presence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and serum analysed for the cytokines interleukin-18 and soluble tumour necrosis factor receptor 1 and 2 (sTNFR1, sTNFR2). At 17 and 20 years of age, fasting blood samples were analysed for serum liver enzymes, insulin, glucose, triglycerides (TG), total cholesterol, high density lipoprotein and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, high sensitivity C-reactive protein and uric acid. The homoeostatic model assessment (HOMA) was calculated and approximated IR was defined by a HOMA >4. Anthropometric data was collected and dual energy X-ray absorptiometry measurement performed for lean and total fat mass. As at this young age the prevalence of metabolic syndrome was expected to be low, a two-step cluster analysis was used using waist circumference, TGs, insulin, and systolic blood pressure to derive a distinct high-risk group with features consistent with the metabolic syndrome and increased cardiometabolic risk.
MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: Men at age 17 years with increased cardiometabolic risk had lower concentrations of serum testosterone (medians: 4.0 versus 4.9 ng/mL) and inhB (193.2 versus 221.9 pg/mL) (P <0.001 for both) compared to those within the low risk metabolic cluster. Men with ultrasound evidence of NAFLD (n = 45, 9.8%) had reduced total sperm output (medians: 68.0 versus 126.00 million, P = 0.044), testosterone (4.0 versus 4.7 ng/mL, P = 0.005) and inhB (209.1 versus 218.4 pg/mL, P = 0.032) compared to men without NAFLD. Men with higher concentrations of sTNFR1 at 17 years of age had a lower sperm output and serum concentration of inhB, with an increase in LH and FSH (all P <0.05 after adjustment for age, BMI, abstinence and a history of cryptorchidism, varicocele, cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug use), compared to those without an elevated sTNFR1. Multivariable regression analysis, adjusting for confounders, demonstrated that men in the high-risk metabolic cluster at 20 years had a lower serum testosterone and inhB (P = 0.003 and P = 0.001, respectively). A HOMA-IR > 4 was associated with a lower serum testosterone (P =
LIMITATIONS, REASONS FOR CAUTION: This study is limited by the sample size and multiple comparisons, and causality cannot be proven from an observational study. Due to a 3-year interval between some metabolic assessments and assessment of testicular function, we cannot exclude the introduction of a bias into the study, as some of the participants and their testicular function will not have been fully mature at the 17-year assessment.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: Irrespective of a proven causation, our study findings are important in that a significant minority of the men, prior to seeking parenthood, presented co-existent features of metabolic disorder and signs of testicular impairment. Of particular note is that the presence of NAFLD at 17 years of age, although only present in a minority of men, was associated with an almost 50% reduction in sperm output at 20 years of age, and that the presence of IR at 20 years was associated with a 20% reduction in testicular volume.
STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTEREST(S): This study was supported by Australian NHMRC (Grant Numbers 634457, 35351417 and 403981) and received support from the Raine Medical Research Foundation, The Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, Women and Infants Research Foundation, Curtin University and Edith Cowan University. D.A.D., J.E.D., N.M., L.A.A., R.-C.H., T.A.M., J.K.O., L.J.B. have nothing to declare. R.J.H. is Medical Director of Fertility Specialists of Western Australia, has equity interests in Western IVF, and has received grant support from MSD, Merck-Serono and Ferring Pharmaceuticals. RMcL has equity interests in the Monash IVF Group. R.J.N. has equity interests in FertilitySA, and has received grant support from Merck Serono and Ferring Pharmaceuticals. D.J.H. has received institutional grant funding (but no personal income) for investigator-initiated testosterone pharmacology studies from Lawley and Besins Healthcare and has provided expert testimony to anti-doping tribunals and for testosterone litigation. This abstract was awarded the Fertility Society of Australia clinical exchange award for the oral presentation at ESHRE, Barcelona, in 2018.