Men dealing with infertility issues or cancers associated with the condition may have new hope for diagnosis and treatment as a result of research conducted at Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health.

A paper published Thursday in the medical journal Cell Stem Cell by scientists from the two institutions broke new ground in describing the changes that human sperm stem cells go through as they mature.

“This information yields new insights into how sperm stem cells function and develop under normal circumstances,” said Bradley Cairns, who has a dual position as senior director of basic science at Huntsman Cancer Institute and as chairman of oncological sciences at the U.

“We have built a very important framework we can now use to help us understand what happens when things go wrong,” he said.

Added James Hotaling, his co-author and an assistant professor of surgery at the U.: “This study will help us understand what causes infertility in some cases.”

The new knowledge could prove valuable to couples struggling with their inability to have a baby, said Camille Van Wagoner Hawkins, executive director of the Utah Infertility Resource Center in Millcreek.

One in six couples has trouble conceiving, with one-third of those cases caused by male-factor infertility. “It’s much more common than many people realize,” she said, adding that infertility tends to be more emotionally debilitating for men when the cause is male factor versus female factor.

“We see women more commonly reaching out and talking about their experiences and how they feel. Men, not so much,” Hawkins said. “There’s a very different emotional response from the male partner when the diagnosis is male-factor infertility. There’s a lot of associated guilt and shame and this feeling of being less than a man. … Infertility is a taboo topic. There’s an extra layer of stigma.”

Hotaling, a medical doctor who has worked closely with Hawkins, has seen for himself “how devastating this diagnosis can be.”

Up to now, studies of sperm stem cells dealt with models or mice. But using genome analysis tools, the Utah scientists examined genes that turn on or off in a given cell during development. They also were able to profile cells individually, eventually identifying four phases of sperm stem cell maturation.

“Stem cells progress from a ‘quiescent’ state, to a ‘proliferation’ state during which stem cells divide, to a final ‘differentiation’ state when stem cells mature to become sperm,” the researchers wrote.

The study’s findings also are likely to help scientists understand the complicated genetic changes that link infertility and increased incidences of testicular and prostate cancers.

“Our study sheds new light on how genes normally function in sperm stem cells,” Cairns said. “The next step will be to use this knowledge to better understand what changes happen when sperm stem cells don’t develop normally and instead convert into cancer cells.”

Infertility counselor Hawkins said it’s appropriate that these kinds of discoveries are being made in Utah, where not having children can stimulate greater unhappiness than in many other states.

“We help people understand they’re not alone. When you struggle with infertility, you can feel isolated, especially living in Utah where there are big families and pregnant women everywhere,” she said. “When an individual or couple wants to build their family but they can’t, it makes that experience of living in such a family-focused culture a little more difficult.”

Co-authors with Cairns and Hotaling on the paper are Jingtao Guo, Edward Grow, Chongil Yi, Patrick Murphy, Candice Wike and Douglas Carrell.

Funding came from the U., National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Correction: Oct. 10, 11:55 a.m. An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect name for the Utah Infertility Resource Center.