The wonder metal—a nickel-titanium alloy with heat-activated shape memory—has proved essential for Wisconsin and Illinois researchers building what British tabloids are calling a “bionic penis.”
Chuckles aside, the proposed implant has enough potential advantages over existing erectile dysfunction treatment implants that Boston Scientific officials have taken notice and are supporting the work, according to a University of Wisconsin news release.
The potential market for such a device could be significant. More than half of men between ages 40 and 70 experience partial or complete erectile dysfunction, according to The Merck Manual. About a third of men with ED don’t respond to drugs such as Viagra, according to the UW release.
Boston Scientific’s AMS Men’s Health business is already a major provider of implantable erectile dysfunction devices, including the inflatable AMS 700 and AMS Ambicor prostheses and the always rigid Spectra concealable prosthesis.
“In regards to the University of Wisconsin program, Boston Scientific supports research that advances medical and scientific knowledge related to products and relevant disease states across our many businesses,” Boston Scientific spokesperson Catherine Brady said via email.
“Our global Investigator Sponsored Research program is open to submissions from all researchers who are interested in conducting their own research in the field,” Brady added.
Brian Le, a materials scientist and part of the Urology Department faculty at UW, suspects the device he is working on could provide hope for men who lose their ability to gain an erection after cancer or another injury. He compared the implant he is working on to breast implants that allow women to feel like themselves again after breast cancer surgery.
“It’s a survivorship issue—restoring function can help people feel whole in their bodies again,” Le said.
Le is working on the ED device with colleagues Alberto Colombo and Kevin McKenna at Northwestern University and Kevin McVary at Southern Illinois University. They recently published their research in the journal Urology.
Penile implant technology hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. The devices can involve an inflatable water pump—with a tricky implant surgery, awkward use, and potential complications. Especially in developing countries, malleable implants have proved simpler and cheaper, but men with the implants have an erect penis all the time.
Medtronic officials previously saw promise in erectile dysfunction–treating peripheral stenting, but suspended a study in 2012 due to disappointing enrollment experiences.
Enter the magic of superelastic nitinol, which is already a go-to material for endovascular surgery devices. A nitinol implant can remain flaccid at body temperature but then “remember” an expanded, rigid shape when heated by a few degrees. The most recent study in Urology tested the nitinol prosthesis’ ability to expand and contract continually; mechanical testing went well.
Le and his Southern Illinois University colleagues are presently developing a remote-control gizmo that a man with such an implant could wave over his penis to heat the nitinol and achieve an erection.
Should the research continue to meet targets, Le thinks the device could hit the market in five to 10 years.
“We’re hoping that, with a better device, a better patient experience, and a simpler surgery, more urologists would perform this operation, and more patients would want to try the device,” Le said.[Want to stay more on top of MDO content? Subscribe to our weekly e-newsletter.]