How placenta could protect a man’s love life

Jul 2022

Research shows wrapping the placenta around the nerves that control erections could protect from damage during prostate surgery.

HUMAN placenta that is normally discarded after childbirth could help to reduce the risk of men being left impotent after prostate cancer surgery. 

New research shows wrapping the placenta around the delicate nerves that control erections helps to protect them against damage during a radical prostatectomy – the surgical removal of the whole prostate. 

Placental tissue, called amnion, is a tough, flexible membrane that forms the innermost layer of the placenta, the organ which transfers nutrients and oxygen from a pregnant woman to her baby in the womb. 

But as well as forming a protective barrier, amnion also releases a cocktail of different compounds – including growth factors and stem cells – that scientists think help to repair any nerve damage done during the prostate removal operation. 

Animal studies also suggest these compounds dampen down any harmful inflammation as they leak out of the placental tissue.  

An estimated 5,000 men a year in the UK undergo a radical prostatectomy. 

The operation involves removing the whole prostate and often a small amount of surrounding tissue as well, to make sure no cancerous cells are left inside the body. 

But the procedure carries a high risk of damage to the bundle of nerves near the prostate that are responsible for sexual function, as well as urinary continence. 

The charity Prostate Cancer UK estimates that up to 80 per cent of men undergoing prostate removal later experience erectile problems, although in time many do recover some of their function. 

Modern operating techniques – known as nerve-sparing surgery – can reduce the risks, while drugs like Viagra can be of some help in restoring a man’s sex life but have limited effectiveness in those whose nerves are damaged. 

The idea for using discarded placenta first emerged several years ago when provisional research suggested it might be useful. 

After birth, the placental tissue used in prostate surgery is sterilised and dried out instead of being thrown away. 

As soon as it is placed inside the body during the operation, the dehydrated ‘wraps’ become moist on contact with blood and other bodily fluids. 

This means they instantly stick to the bundles of nerves without the need for stitches. After use during the surgery the placenta tissue is removed.  

The latest evidence that it is effective was published earlier this year in the Journal of Robotic Surgery. 

A team of US researchers from Harvard University, the University of Central Florida and the State University of New York, studied the progress of almost 600 men over six years who had a prostatectomy where the placenta ‘wrap’ (each one measured 4xm by 1cm) was used to protect a group of nerves called the neurovascular bundle. 

The results showed that, after the surgery, more than 80 per cent of the men regained sexual function with the average time to recovery being just three to four months. Some enjoyed normal sex lives again in just five weeks. 

Even with nerve-sparing surgery, it can often take up to a year to recover fully when the nerves are not protected in this way. 
In a report on the findings the researchers behind the latest study said: ‘The recovery of erectile function in as little as three months – and continence after just six weeks – is an encouraging result.’ 

Now, other studies are investigating whether amnion tissue can also be used to speed up the repair of diabetes-related skin ulcers, or even help to dampen down inflamed gums in patients with severe gum disease. 

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