Artificial Tissue Restores Erectile Functioning in Pigs, May Help Humans
Researchers in China have managed to restore erectile function in pigs with injured penises using a synthetic tissue transplant, according to a new study. They say the promising results could, one day, lead to developing similar treatments for erectile dysfunction in humans. The research, published in the journal Matter, could thus have vast implications for addressing issues pertaining to male reproductive health.
The study focused on the tunica albuginea, a fibrous sheath that surrounds the penis and is responsible for preventing the drainage of blood from the organ, keeping it erect. Scientists created an artificial version of the tissue, which they call artificial tunica albuginea (ATA). When the ATA was tested in Bama miniature pigs who had sustained injuries to penile tissues, it helped them regain normal functioning. “…[We] were… surprised by the results in the animal experiments, where the penis regained normal erection immediately after the use of ATA,” Xuetao Shi, a researcher at the South China University of Technology and an author of the study, said in a statement.
Some form of erectile dysfunction plagues around half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70. In addition, about 5% of the male population suffers from Peyronie’s disease – a condition commonly caused by injury during sex that damages the penile sheath. “We noticed that this is an area that has received little attention, yet the related need is huge,” Shi said. Previous studies have focused on repairing the urethra, but very few researchers have looked at restoring erectile function, Shi added.
Penile damage is usually treated by grafting tissue taken from other parts of the body to replace the affected area. However, there are risks associated with such treatments, the greatest of which is the possibility of the body rejecting the new tissue altogether. The grafted tissues often do not replace the natural tissue satisfactorily as their internal structure is different from that of the original tunica albuginea. To overcome these potential problems, researchers are looking at synthetic tissue, in this case, bionic penile tissue, as a viable option.
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To create their artificial sheath, the researchers used hydrogel, a material that has many biomedical applications today, including in contact lenses and tissue engineering, reported AFP. Hydrogel allowed the ATA to mimic the elasticity of the natural penile tissue. According to Science Alert, the ATA was able to undergo “cyclic bursts of relaxing and stretching while resisting fatigue, maintaining toughness, and withstanding needle punctures during suturing.”
When used to patch damaged organs in pigs, “The erection of the penis returned to normal after suturing the ATA at the injured part, and the long-term prognosis was satisfactory,” the researchers wrote. When these patches were analyzed after a month, the scientists behind the study found that while the artificial tissue did not restore the microstructure of the surrounding natural tissue, it still developed a structure comparable to it. Further, it successfully allowed the animals to attain a normal erection when combined with a saline injection.
Shi said, “The results one month after the procedure showed that the ATA group achieved good, though not perfect, repair results.” He explained that, in the case of penile injuries, the tunica albuginea is not the only tissue that suffers damage. Repairing the organ, then, gets trickier when the surrounding nerves and the spongy tissue that runs through the shaft may suffer injuries as well.
“Our work at this stage focuses on the repair of a single tissue in the penis, and the next stage will be to consider the repair of the overall penile defect or the construction of an artificial penis from a holistic perspective,” he added. The researchers are also looking at applying a similar strategy to create biomaterials for other tissues, such as those of the heart, intestine, bladder, cornea and even blood vessels. As Shi said, “This design approach is not limited to the biomimetic design of tunica albuginea tissues but can be extended to many other load-bearing tissues.”
While significant work still needs to be done before such bionic patches can be used in humans, its success in an animal model spells hope for future treatments for erectile dysfunction and advancing reproductive health of men.