The recall of a medical device that left particles of tungsten in women’s breasts has been classified as Class I, the most serious type of recall. This is the type involving “situations in which there is a reasonable probability that use of these products will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.” The device, the Axxent FlexiShield Mini, was a pad made of tungsten and silicone rubber that was temporarily placed inside breast incisions during an unusual procedure in which women were given an entire course of radiation treatment in one dose after undergoing a lumpectomy for cancer. The pads were used to help direct the radiation beam and shield healthy tissue. But the pads were flawed, and left the breast tissue and chest muscles riddled with hundreds of tungsten particles.
It’s not known if tungsten is dangerous because relatively little research has been done on its long-term health effects in humans. But it shows up on mammograms and may make them difficult to read, which is especially troubling for women who have had breast cancer and worry about recurrences. The metal particles resemble calcium deposits, which can indicate cancer. That the tungsten shows up on mammograms is what made the recall Class I. The particles could interfere with diagnosis because they can be mistaken for cancerous calcifications or may hide real calcifications. Twenty-nine women are known to have been affected: 27 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif., and two at Karmanos-Crittenton Cancer Center in Rochester Hills, Mich. So far, 16 have had follow-up mammograms six months after their surgery, and all 16 were found to have tungsten particles.
The device was made by a company called Xoft, which was subsequently bought by another company, iCad. The Axxent FlexiShield Mini had been cleared by the drug agency in June 2009. It was put on the fast track process for approval. That process, known as 510(k), takes less time than the procedure used to approve a new device, and it generally does not require tests on humans. The shields, taken off the market in February, were cut to fit each patient. The cutting of the shields is believed to be the cause of the shedding of tungsten particles. But why that occurred is not clear, because the shields were meant to be cut and were made with that in mind.
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