CHICAGO — Scientists are still in the midst of understanding the long-term impact of COVID infections. But more research now suggests the virus is having a significant impact on men's sexual health.
For the first time, a new study is showing how the virus infects multiple tissues of a man's genital tract affecting blood flow and fertility.
When researchers at Northwestern University began conducting their imaging scans of primates infected with SARS-CoV-2, they expected to see the virus show up in the lungs and near the brain.
“It's very specifically designed to detect the virus and virus in cells that are infected by the virus,” said Thomas J. Hope, a professor of cell and developmental biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
But the scans, which help reveal the metabolic and biochemical function of tissues and organs, lit up much lower.
“Basically, the penis and testicles in this animal were just glowing. So, we did not expect to see this,” said Hope, who is the study’s lead investigator.
At the same time, Northwestern clinicians began studying samples from autopsies of men who died of COVID.
“As we started to compare the results of looking at the pathology and that in some of the tissues, destruction of those tissues by the virus, very much matched what was being seen in humans and autopsy samples,” said Hope.
The indication that COVID infections can negatively impact sexual health in men has been growing.
A recent University of Florida Health study found men with COVID-19 are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed with erectile dysfunction than those who have not had a bout with the virus.
Northwestern researchers found that testicular pain, erectile dysfunction, reduced sperm count and quality, and decreased fertility were related to a SARS-CoV-2 infection similar to other illnesses like Ebola and Zika.
“These sorts of symptoms are known to be associated with other virus infections, mumps being very famous historically for causing male sterility,” said Hope.
Hope wanted to know how this was happening.
“Is this being caused by fevers? Inflammation? Is it sort of indirect or is it direct?” he asked.
The scans revealed that those symptoms were a direct result of cellular infection of the male reproductive tract and not caused by fever or inflammation.
“And so, we sort of make this connection of what's trying to explain the mechanism of what's being observed in humans,” said Hope.
Moving forward researchers are hoping to study whether SARS-CoV-2 infects tissues of the female reproductive system, as well as try to develop therapies that could lessen its impact on male fertility.
“If we can identify people that are having problems, try to understand that better, then we can really have an impact and make people's lives better,” said Hope. “Which is really the goal.”