Materials

Memory Metal Gives This Penile Implant a Certain Spring

The otherwise relaxed implant straightens when warmed externally by microwave radiation.

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When urologist Brian Le was training to become a surgeon, he learned how to implant a penile pump. But he found the procedure overly complicated and figured any potential patients would too.

"The more you make it seem like a scary operation, the fewer men would want to sign up," Le told Seeker.

Not only that, penile implants, which haven't seen many improvements on design in the 40 years since their development, were also awkward to use and prone to mechanical failure.

Le, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and his colleagues thought that an implant made from shape memory could offer a simpler solution. Their device, made from biocompatible material widely used in surgical procedures, could reduce the complexity of the surgery and make it less daunting for the patient.

The simplicity comes from the form as well as its function.

Its shape is roughly tubular but has a spine-and-rib design that keeps it stable as it flexes. Its function lies in the heat-activated material called nitinol, a nickel-titanium alloy known for its superelastic properties and ability to "remember" a shape.

In this case, Le and his colleagues programmed the nitinol device to straighten when it was heated up to just a few degrees over body temperature. At normal body temperatures, around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the device relaxes.

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It could also be programmed to lengthen. "The sky's the limit in terms of the shape," he said.

To activate it, the man would use an external device that emits microwave radiation, waving it over his penis. Microwave radiation is preferred over a device that actually radiates heat, because microwaves won't burn or damage the skin.

Le and his team think that the device could help the 40 percent of men between the ages of 40 and 70 who have some form of erectile dysfunction. A third of the men in this group don't respond to drugs like Viagra.

"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 in a press statement.

Le said the biggest hurdles with the device won't be about the design or how to surgically implant it, but with regulations and FDA approval. It will take several more years of testing before such a device is available on the market.

The researchers published the results of their latest experiments on the shape-memory device in the journal Urology.

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