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Scientists have enabled pigs with injured penises to experience normal erections again with the help of a bionic tissue transplant, an achievement that may pave the way for new treatments of erectile dysfunction in humans, reports a new study.The new research focused on the tunica albuginea, a layered structure inside the penis that is directly involved in the erectile process. A team led by biomedical specialists at the South China University of Technology (SCUT) were able to make an artificial version of the tunica albuginea using hydrogel, which they successfully used to patch damaged penile tissues in Bama miniature pigs.
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Millions of people experience some form of erectile dysfunction in their lives that hampers their ability to achieve or maintain an erection. Some of these conditions, such as Peyronie's disease, are caused by injuries that affect the tunica albuginea, which is a highly elastic and double-layered tissue that facilitates the transition from soft to firm during an erection. Scientists have experimented with repairing the tunica albuginea with transplanted biological material, but these natural patches are sometimes rejected by the host’s immune system. To get around this problem, the SCUT team developed an artificial patch made from hydrogels that is meticulously sculpted into patterns that mimic its real-life counterpart. After a series of experiments that involved detached pig penises, rat skin, and fresh rabbit blood, the team ultimately produced a “delicate structure” that “is biocompatible and has a positive effect on pig tunica albuginea injuries,” according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Matter.“Inspired by the delicate strain-adaptive structure of natural tunica albuginea, we propose an artificial tunica albuginea (ATA) composed of a strain-stiffening hydrogel consisting of aligned yet crimped fibers,” the researchers said in the study. “ATA possesses several key mechanical features of natural tunica albuginea,” they added. “Furthermore, ATA displays the capability to repair injuries and restore normal erectile function of the TA-damaged penile tissue in a pig model. Our study demonstrates that ATA has great promise for penile injury repair.”In other words, the pigs that received these patches were mostly able to achieve normal erections again. The results hint at a promising new treatment for people suffering from damage to the tunica albuginea, which can result in unusually curved penises and painful erections.However, it will take more research to understand how the artificial patch might fare in humans. While the authors note in the study that the “Bama miniature pig has no apparent penile spine and a penile size that is similar to that in humans,” there are still significant differences between the organs of the two species that will need to be investigated.In the meantime, the preliminary success of the artificial transplant in pigs could inspire a number of related applications, including wearable devices, implantable sensors, and other biomedical technologies. “The strategy for constructing ATA could be extended to biomimetic constructs of various materials and other load-bearing tissues, such as blood vessels, intestine, cornea, bladder, tendons, and myocardium,” the team concluded. “The mammalian penis is controlled by blood flow for a rapid soft-hard transition, and this bionic ATA might inspire the development of fluid-driven soft robots.”