Q&A with Dr. Daniel Rukstalis on prostatic urethral lift for enlarged prostates

A new procedure that relieves symptoms without causing sexual side effects

As men get older, their prostates often get bigger and block the flow of urine out of the bladder. This condition, which is called benign prostatic hyperplasia, causes bothersome symptoms. Since men can’t fully empty their bladders, they experience sudden and frequent urges to urinate. Treatments can relieve these symptoms, but not without troubling side effects: pharmaceutical BPH treatments cause dizziness, fatigue, and retrograde ejaculation, meaning that semen gets diverted to the bladder during orgasm instead of being ejected from the body. Surgical treatments such as transurethral resection of the prostate, or TURP, can relieve symptoms for many years. But they also take weeks or months to recover from, and men can experience permanent retrograde ejaculation, and in some instances, long-term impotence.

Still, it’s important to treat BPH to avoid even worse problems later. Left untreated, men can develop urinary retention, which is an acute inability to urinate without a catheter, and their bladder health can also deteriorate over time.

An alternative

Now a newer BPH procedure, called prostatic urethral lift, or UroLift, provides another option. And unlike drugs and older BPH surgeries, it spares sexual functioning.

During a UroLift procedure, doctors use tiny implants and sutures to pull the prostate away from the bladder so that urine flows more freely out of the body. The procedure can be performed in a doctor’s office, and most men go home the same day without a catheter. Clinical studies have shown that symptomatic improvements hold up for at least five years, which is comparable to study results with TURP.

The FDA approved UroLift for enlarged prostates in 2013, and the American Urological Association began recommending it as a standard of care option this year. Urologists around the country are getting up to speed on the procedure, which is now becoming increasingly available. Readers should be aware that the AUA gave UroLift a “C” grade, in part because the long-term data in support of the procedure aren’t as plentiful as they are for TURP and other more invasive surgeries, which received a grade of “B.”

For more information, we spoke to Daniel Rukstalis, M.D., a professor of urology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Dr. Rukstalis led the clinical trials behind UroLift’s approval by the FDA, and he’s performed the UroLift procedure on over 350 BPH patients. (For full disclosure, Dr. Rukstalis is a clinical investigator for NeoTract, the company that developed UroLift).

Q: Dr. Rukstalis, thank you for joining us. Why would a man consider UroLift offer over other BPH treatments?

Rukstalis: Well, all the available therapies can lessen obstructive urinary symptoms and minimize long-term risks to the bladder. But UroLift is at this moment the only BPH treatment that completely spares erectile and ejaculatory functioning.

Q: How good is it at improving BPH symptoms overall?

Rukstalis: Our clinical trial led to a 12-point drop on average in International Prostate Symptom Scores (IPSS). [The IPSS is an eight-question screening tool that scores the severity of symptoms such as incomplete bladder emptying, urinary frequency, and weak streams. Men treated for BPH usually have IPSS scores of at least 20.] The trial had 206 participants. And at five years, their IPSS scores were still improved by about a third and their quality of life scores were also about 50% higher than when they had the procedure.

Q: Who is eligible for a UroLift?

Rukstalis: It’s FDA-approved for men 45 and older with prostates up to 80 grams in size (a normal prostate in a man ranges between 7 to 11 grams). But my view is that UroLift works best in prostates ranging from 25 to 60 grams. About a third of men with BPH also have what’s called a “median lobe,” or a bit of prostate tissue that protrudes up into the bladder. We just completed a clinical trial showing that UroLift works well for these men too. On the basis of that study, the FDA approved UroLift for men with median lobes in early 2018. We’ll typically evaluate potential candidates with a pelvic ultrasound, which provides a lot of information about the health of the bladder and the size and shape of the prostate.

Q: What can a man expect going into the procedure?

Rukstalis: We’ll put him to sleep with intravenous propofol, which is the same anesthetic used during a colonoscopy. The UroLift implants get delivered into the prostate with a rigid metal scope that goes directly through the penis. By pulling excess prostate tissue out of the way, the implants create a channel through which urine can flow. (This YouTube video provides a good overview.) We do this as an outpatient procedure.

 Q: What will he experience after the procedure is done?

Rukstalis: He can expect some transient blood in the urine and a burning sensation when he pees, but this all clears up within about three days. About 2% to 4% of the men I treat spend a few days using a catheter.

Q: Why doesn’t UroLift work for larger prostates over 60 grams?

Rukstalis: Because beyond a certain size threshold, the implants don’t open the channel well enough. Also you wind up needing too many implants, and they’re very expensive — anywhere from $700 to $1,000 each. The procedure is optimized for four to six implants and you really don’t want to use more than seven of them.

Q: This is a new procedure. How important is the doctor’s experience?

Rukstalis: UroLift is a judgment-based procedure in terms of the number of implants used and where in the prostate a doctor puts them. What I would say is that you’re looking for a doctor who’s comfortable with a cystoscope [which is a hollow metal rod with a lens used for prostate examinations]. If a doctor is comfortable with cystoscopy equipment, then he or she can adopt quite readily to the technology. And there are excellent UroLift training programs around the country for any urologist who wants to do it.

Q: What about long-term prospects? Do men need repeat treatments?

Rukstalis: We know that most men still benefit from treatment at five years. But we can’t say whether those results predict benefits at 10 years or longer. We haven’t done those studies yet, but they haven’t been for TURP and the other surgical procedures either. My view is that it depends on prostate size. Men with smaller prostates will benefit for longer durations.

Q: Does having had a UroLift complicate things for a man who might need a TURP later?

Rukstalis: Not in my experience. I’ve performed TURPs, prostatectomies, and laser prostate surgeries in people who had a UroLift with no trouble.

Q: Do you have any criticisms of the procedure?

Rukstalis: It’s too expensive. We need to find ways of doing UroLift at lesser cost. And some men find it doesn’t work as well as they had hoped, even though in these men, the procedure goes a long way toward protecting bladder functioning.

Q: Thanks very much! I’m sure our readers will appreciate your insights.

Dr. Marc Garnick, the Gorman Brothers Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and editor in chief of HarvardProstateKnowledge.org also commented on the UroLift: “This is one of many emerging options for non-pharmacologic BPH treatment that can now be offered to the proper patient matched to the appropriately trained urologist. As with many procedures, longer-term outcomes are needed to determine its proper role in treating this very common problem.”

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