for National Geographic News
A new technique using tiny, exploding bubbles has allowed doctors to shrink enlarged prostates quickly and virtually painlessly in dogs, researchers announced recently.
The method, called histotripsy, uses focused pulses of high-energy ultrasound sent through the skin to create microscopic bubbles in the prostate, which in humans is a squishy, walnut-size gland located under the bladder and in front of the rectum.
Because dogs and humans have similar prostates, the procedure is also promising in men, experts say.
(Explore an interactive of the human body.)
These bubbles grow and collapse in a process called cavitation, which liquefies tissue.
By changing the aim of the ultrasound pulses, researchers can quickly turn unwanted tissue to mush, Roberts said. The excess material is then washed out of the body via urine.
"Historically, no one believed that cavitation could be controlled like this," lead study author William Roberts, a urologist at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.
Though all of the prostate's functions are unknown, one of its main roles in humans is to push fluid into the urethra to accompany sperm during sexual climax, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The added fluid energizes sperm and makes the vaginal canal less acidic.
Prostate enlargement is a common problem, affecting a third of U.S. men in their 50s and half of those in their 70s and 80s, Roberts said.
If left unchecked, enlarged prostates can create medical problems by impeding the flow of urine. Eventually, surgery is needed to keep urine from being completely shut off.
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