Northeastern University

Beware the squeamish: an alternative surgical tool for uterine fibroids

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Photo by Hey Paul Studios via Flickr.

Uterine fibroids. Not something most of us like to talk about. What are they? Calcified deposits stuck to the lining of a woman’s uterus. Are they common? Yes. Are they dangerous? Not usually. Painful? Yes — when they get big enough….and they can weigh up to several pounds. Also, they can range from very soft to as hard as a golf ball, which also affects the pain factor.

A couple decades ago the only way to get rid of a fibroid was to remove the entire uterus, leaving otherwise healthy young women incapable of bearing children. You’d think there’d be a better way, right?

Enter the hysteroscope.

The other day I met Jessica Morris for coffee at Peet’s. We chatted about uteri and non-invasive surgical tools that circumvent incisions by going right up the vaginal canal instead. You know, normal coffee talk.

Morris is a third year student at Northeastern. Last semester she had her first co-op at a company called Hologic, where she worked on their next generation hysteroscopic technology. It looks like a magic wand and it practically is, without the magic: it’s capable of removing a 5cm fibroid in fifteen minutes without any invasive cuts or long healing periods. Plus, you get to keep your woman parts. Instead of a hystorectomy, how about outpatient surgery that takes under an hour? Sounds good to me.

Morris is continuing to work at Hologic despite starting classes again this semester. Which is good: she played a key role in the various stages of the entire design cycle. From reviewing testing data in order to determine the best design to writing and updating test methods and protocols, Morris did more than your average intern. Ultimately her efforts and those of her colleagues were rewarded with FDA clearance of the new device.

Morris hadn’t intended to work in the area of women’s health, she only wanted to work in biomedical engineering: some space where she could tinker and also have an impact on health. “I learned everything I ever needed to know about women’s anatomy in eight months,” she joked.

While having a calcified growth shaved off the wall of your womb may sound like a hell of an afternoon, the fibroids themselves actually tend to be more painful, said Morris. The blade of the device is housed behind a protective window. Only material protruding from the surface comes into contact with them, and thus, they don’t affect the healthy tissue.

Only 0.1% of all fibroids turn out to actually be cancerous tumors, said Morris. Still, the device Morris worked on cuts the tissue away and then sucks it out intact so that it can be tested.

Now, it’s almost five. Just about time for me to start thinking about dinner.

Which reminds me — another fun job, in addition to stuff like “design verification testing,” Morris got to test out the devices on cow tongue.


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