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Study: Balloon technique may aid infertile women

A new device is helping infertile women become pregnant by opening their blocked fallopian tubes with a balloon, doctors reported. The technique is similar to the use of balloons to open the clogged arteries of heart patients.

The balloon is mounted on a flexible tube called a catheter and threaded through the womb into one of the fallopian tubes, which connect the uterus to the ovaries. Once the balloon is in place, doctors inflate it to open the passage.

The procedure requires neither surgery nor general anesthesia, said Dr. Ilan Tur-Kaspa, an author of a study documenting the technique's success. He said the results offer hope of pregnancy for perhaps a tenth of the approximately 1-million women with blocked fallopian tubes.

The device is designed to treat proximal tubal occlusion, which is blockage of a tube near the point where it enters the uterus, said Tur-Kaspa of Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center in Chicago.

The device isn't designed to treat the much more common distal tubal occlusion, which is blockage farther up the tubes where they pick up the egg from the ovary. This type afflicts 90 percent of the women with blocked fallopian tubes.

"Some of these tubes can remain open for a year or a year-and-a half," said Confino, director of education in obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center in Chicago.

Dr. Edmond Confino, lead author of the study and director of education in obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai, said the procedure could reduce by two-thirds the cost of treating women with blockages, who now usually choose between microsurgery or test-tube fertilization.

But a surgeon not involved in the study said he believes the technique will offer no significant advantages over simple catheterization to clear blocked fallopian tubes.

"I'm not against the technique, it's just another variation," said Dr. Rafael Valle, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

Valle noted that balloon tuboplasty is appropriate only for fallopian tubes blocked by soft matter such as mucous plugs, not hard scar tissue or fibrous tissue like the type found in uterine tumors called fibroids.

Confino said the balloon device is superior to regular catheterization because it causes far fewer puncture wounds and provides longer-lasting results.

The balloon device and the technique, called transcervical balloon tuboplasty, is awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval.