Scientists at the University of Sheffield have developed a ground-breaking new material which they hope could help thousands of women worldwide.
It is very common for postmenopausal women to develop weaknesses in their pelvic floor.
This can lead to problems such as pelvic organ prolapse, where the pelvic organs drop down and push against the vagina walls, or stress urinary incontinence where urine leaks out at times where the bladder is under pressure, for example sneezing or laughing.
These issues are thought to affect 50% of postmenopausal women worldwide, many who undergo vaginal mesh procedures, which involve surgeons using material to help repair the problems.
The current material used, polypropylene, is highly controversial. It has been used very successfully in hernia repair but using a large amount of the material can end up with severe complications.
Last month the Government announced it was launching an audit of all women who have undergone the surgery since 2005, in order to find out the scale of the complications.
However, the new material is closer to human tissue characteristically, and has oestrogen inserted into the mesh to speed up the healing process.
Scientists have been working on the material for six years, but many are still critical of it.
Kath Sansom, from the ‘Sling the Mesh’ campaign said: “It is like a horrible case of Groundhog Day. Have they learnt nothing from the past and the devastation of polypropylene?
They now suggest using polyurethane – the key word here is ‘poly’, which means it is still plastic, which is unstable and can change once implanted.”
However, Dr Naside Mangir, a Urology surgeon who helped develop the material, says: “We sympathise with the sceptics, because they are suffering due to these mesh complications, but actually we are on the same side – we are working for them.
Not all plastics are bad – not all of them are good, but you need to design and use them purposefully. When we can do this, they help save lives.”
Commenting on the announcement, Chair of the APPG on Surgical Mesh Implants, Owen Smith MP said: “Whilst I welcome new interventions to treat stress urinary incontinence and prolapse, I would urge great caution over the use of synthetic materials to treat these conditions.
It is crucial that lessons are learnt from the use of polypropylene mesh and the life-changing complications women have experienced since undergoing surgery. This new material must undergo rigorous and strict clinical trials and should only be used if such complications can be ruled out.”
Professor Sheila MacNeil, Professor of Tissue Engineering at University of Sheffield said: “For the past decade patients have not been listened to, and the new materials have not been developed – that’s is the real problem. We badly need to develop new materials that are better.”
“We are now getting criticised as though we are wanting to put nasty plastic into a patient. To say plastic is an oversimplification – we have various different polymers as heart valves, artificial blood vessels, coating for pacemakers.”
The next stage in the process will be trying the material on animal experiments, before it can even be considered for human use.