Scientists in China believe they may have found a better way to fix an injured penis. In research published this week, a synthetic material developed by the team was able to restore normal erectile function when implanted in pigs. The material may offer important advantages over existing methods, and it may even have applications for other kinds of tissue repair.
In a penis, the tunica albuginea is the protective, elastic layer surrounding the erectile tissue that pumps blood to the organ. It plays a vital role in maintaining an erection, and it’s often one of the parts of the penis damaged by certain conditions or injuries, including a broken penis. And while there are surgical treatments that can repair a damaged urethra, current procedures tend to be less effective at restoring a functional tunica albuginea. Patches attached to the tunica albuginea, largely made of tissue from somewhere else in the body, can be rejected by the immune system, for instance. And these patches simply don’t resemble the natural tunica albuginea on a microscopic level, meaning that they usually can’t restore normal erectile function.
Scientists from the South China University of Technology decided to try a different approach to repairing these kinds of injuries. They aimed to create a safe and synthetic material with similar physical properties as the tunica albuginea, which can bend and twist when the penis isn’t erect and then easily become rigid during an erection. The team’s artificial tunica albuginea is made of hydrogels arranged in a stacked fiber structure, similar to the natural version.
“Our research is based on a simple scientific hypothesis: by simulating the microstructure of natural tissues, we can obtain artificial materials with properties similar to those of the tissues,” senior author Xuetao Shi told Gizmodo in an email.
In animal experiments involving pigs with a damaged tunica albuginea, the material appeared to allow their erect penises to expand as rigidly as in normal pigs (to make the penises erect on demand, a saline injection was used). And though the material didn’t repair the tissue surrounding it, it didn’t appear to cause any added scarring a month later.
“Our study demonstrates that [the artificial tunica albuginea] has great promise for penile injury repair,” the authors wrote in their paper, published Wednesday in Matter.
Encouraging as these results are, this technology is still only in its early stages, Shi notes. There’s a lot more research to be done before it could be widely tested in humans. Among other things, they have to confirm the material’s long-term effectiveness and safety, meaning it could survive unobtrusively in the body for at least three to five years. There are also probably improvements that could be made in how it’s implanted onto the penis (right now, the team is using a simple suture). And even if this material works as intended, it’s only one piece of the puzzle, since injured penises are often damaged in several ways, not just along the tunica albuginea.
The team is working on refining their technology and on better ways to repair the penis as a whole, including the treatment of permanent nerve damage. And team’s basic approach could possibly be used for other tissues, such as those found in the bladder and heart, though the material would likely require adjustments depending on the tissue it’s meant to repair, Shi noted.
“In the future, we hope to systematically study the male reproductive system with the aim of achieving functional simulation and in vitro reconstruction at the organ level of the penis and testes,” Shi said. “On the other hand, we are also working with clinicians to enable early clinical application of artificial TA, which we think is very likely to happen.”