People with urinary incontinence could one day use a remote control to keep their bodily functions in check.
Urinary incontinence can occur after childbirth
Scientists in Australia say they are close to making replacement sphincters operable by remote control.
Urinary incontinence occurs when the sphincter muscle is no longer able to keep urine in the bladder.
The scientists say their replacement sphincter resolves that problem and enables users to decide when they want to go to the bathroom.
The technique, developed by scientists at the University of Melbourne, involves removing tissue from other parts of the body to create a ring of muscle.
This muscle is then transplanted to make the artificial sphincter.
A small electrical stimulator, similar to a heart pacemaker, is also implanted to give the user control over the muscle.
The patient can then use a remote control to operate the muscle when they wish to go to the bathroom.
Professor John Furness, who led the research, believes the technique could transform the lives of millions of people with urinary incontinence.
"The only surgical solutions available until now have involved prosthetic devices that have had problems with leakage, failure and adverse tissue reactions," he said.
"This treatment has the potential to revolutionise the management of severe urinary incontinence which afflicts tens of thousands of people worldwide.
"This is a miserable condition, and if not effectively managed, can result in people entering nursing homes or institutions because they are unable to cope."
The scientists have now teamed up with Continence Control Systems International, an Australian company, to develop the technology.
They are hoping to start clinical trials in 2005, which if successful could see the device becoming available within five years.
Urinary incontinence can occur because of trauma to the sphincter muscle.
In men, this can follow surgery for prostate cancer. In women, it can occur when they reach the menopause, particularly if they have had children.