Beware the squeamish: an alternative surgical tool for uterine fibroids

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.