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J&J suspends sales of devices for fibroid removal after FDA warns of cancer risk

WASHINGTON - Johnson & Johnson is halting sales of devices used to remove growths in the uterus following a government warning that the electronic surgical tools can inadvertently spread cancer to other parts of the body.

The announcement comes one week after the Food and Drug Administration discouraged doctors from using the devices, known as laparoscopic power morcellators. Surgeons use the devices to treat painful fibroids, either by removing the growths themselves or the entire uterus. Power morcellators shred the tissue so it can be removed through a small incision in the abdomen, instead of a larger opening required for traditional surgery.

The FDA said there is a significant risk that the devices can grind up undetected uterine tumors, spreading the cancer to the pelvis, abdomen and other regions.

J&J said in a statement that its three power morcellators have always included language cautioning doctors about this risk. The company said the sales suspension applies to its Gynecare Morcellex, Morcellex Sigma and Gynecare X-Tract devices.

"We believe that suspending the commercialization of these products until their role is better understood and redefined by the medical community is the appropriate course of action at this time," a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Doctors have long recognized the risk of accidentally spreading cancer from undetected tumors, but FDA officials said last Thursday that the problem now appears far more common than previously thought. An FDA analysis estimated that 1 in 350 U.S. women who undergo fibroid procedures each year have a form of cancer called uterine sarcoma.

Fibroids are non-cancerous growths in the uterus that can cause severe pain, heavy bleeding, and bladder and bowel dysfunction, mostly among women in their late 30s and 40s. It's unclear what causes the tumour-like growths — which can grow as large as cantaloupes — but they account for an estimated 240,000 of the 600,000 annual hysterectomies in the U.S. At least 50,000 U.S. women undergo hysterectomy using the power morcellation technique.

Hysterectomy, or surgically removing the uterus, is a key treatment because it is the only way to ensure that fibroids do not return. Myomectomy, surgery that removes fibroids while leaving the uterus intact, is recommended for women who still want to become pregnant.

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