A tiny balloon that clears blocked blood vessels could banish impotence.
The deflated silicone balloon, no bigger than a grain of rice, is placed on the end of a hollow plastic tube and inserted through the skin into the lower abdomen.
It is then fed into the pudendal artery, which supplies the genitals with blood.
Blockages in this blood vessel, caused by the same fatty deposits that trigger heart disease, are a major factor in erectile dysfunction.
Using live X-ray images to navigate, doctors inflate the balloon to unblock the artery by ‘squashing’ back the fatty deposits — this restores blood flow which will improve erections. At the touch of a button, the balloon is then deflated and removed.
The deflated silicone balloon, no bigger than a grain of rice, is placed on the end of a hollow plastic tube and inserted through the skin into the lower abdomen [File photo]
An estimated one in ten men suffers from erectile dysfunction.
Causes range from diabetes and hormonal problems to stress.
But recently, medical attention has focused on the link with heart disease. Just as the heart needs blood to function, so the male genitals also need a good supply of blood during arousal.
But blood vessels in the pelvic region can become diseased through poor diet and lack of exercise.
Indeed, some cardiologists believe erectile problems are an early sign of heart disease.
This is because blood vessels in the pelvis are smaller than around the heart, so blockages restrict blood flow sooner.
Although Viagra and similar medications have transformed the treatment of impotence, approximately a third of men who take them see no improvement.
For them, the only other options are to inject drugs into the penis, which can be painful, or use a pump that increases blood supply.
In recent years, doctors have experimented with stents — tiny metal tubes — to prop open blocked arteries.
Some cardiologists believe erectile problems are an early sign of heart disease. This is because blood vessels in the pelvis are smaller than around the heart, so blockages restrict blood flow sooner
But as ‘foreign’ bodies, these can cause the body’s healing mechanism to over-react, triggering scar tissue that blocks the blood supply again.
One solution is to use drug-eluting stents. These release medication that dampens the healing process, reducing scarring and keeping blood vessels open.
However the drug itself can get ‘washed’ away in the bloodstream, rather than settle on blood vessels where it is needed.
To get around this problem, scientists at Concept Medical, the U.S. firm which developed the new balloon, sprayed the outside with tiny bubbles of fat, each containing a drug called sirolimus — an immunosuppressant designed to dampen down the body’s healing mechanism.
As the balloon is inflated, these bubbles are pressed into the top layers of the blood vessel lining, where the fat is rapidly absorbed before dissolving and then releasing the medicine inside.
Once the deflated balloon is removed, the artery is re-opened and the drug instantly stops scar tissue from blocking it again.
The results of a small trial, involving 27 men with erectile dysfunction who had failed to improve on Viagra or similar drugs, were published in June in PCRonline — a specialist cardiology website.
The trial, at the San Gaudenzio Clinic in Italy, found that three-quarters of the men had an immediate improvement in erections as measured on the International Index of Erectile Function (a scoring system).
Up to 100 more men are currently being recruited to the same trial to see if the findings can be replicated.
Dr Geoff Hackett, a consultant urologist at the Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, and former chairman of the British Society of Sexual Medicine, said balloon therapy works best on patients with single blockages, rather than multiple ones. The latter would require several treatments — each one using a new balloon.
‘The balloon might well clear the blockage, but in many patients there might be several more,’ he said.
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