Technology to combat heart disease

The future of medicine is both exciting and closer than you might think. These three high-tech heart procedures should (if all goes well) be available to the general public over the next few years. Why is this important? Over 15 per cent of Australians suffer from long-term heart disease. These new treatments could improve their quality of life. Even if you don’t suffer from long-term heart disease, a heart attack can strike at any time and some of these treatments could save your life.

Growing new heart cells
Often when you have a heart attack a blood clot forms, blocking one of the coronary arteries (the arteries which feed the heart muscle – it needs blood to work too). This stops the blood getting through to the heart. Part of the heart tissue then dies from lack of oxygen and this area turns into scar tissue. The scar tissue can cause problems with exercise, shortness of breath and weakness.

Researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles have discovered a way to diminish this scar tissue. They are taking a patient’s stem cells from a healthy part of his or her heart, multiplying them in a lab and then injecting them into the site of the injury. The stem cells then repair the damage caused by the heart attack. The process has been testing on 17 patients and on average they have, in the first three months after the injection, experienced a 50 per cent reduction in scar tissue.

Beating heart transplants
One of the biggest problems with heart transplants is that as soon as a donor’s heart is taken out it gets placed in an esky for transportation, where it starts to deteriorate. At the moment this is the best system we have for transporting organs, but it is far from perfect.

In a beating heart transplant the heart is attached to a miniature heart-lung machine, which pumps donor blood through the heart until it is time for the recipient’s surgery. The heart then only spends a few moments without blood running through it before it is in a new chest and beating once more. This helps to improve recovery time and overall heart-health. In a European study of 20 patients, 19 were out of intensive care in under 24 hours. The last one was out in under 48. Normally heart transplant patients spend two to three days in the ICU. Currently more than 140 patients around the world have received beating heart transplants.

A heart without a pulse
There are far fewer donor hearts than there are heart transplant patients. Artificial hearts have been developed, but the current models require external air compressors and require maintenance surgery. A new device, called the beatless heart, has been developed by a team at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. The device pushes blood through the body at a steady rate using only two moving parts floating in magnetic fields. It doesn’t burn out as fast as older models, which means less surgery. The only strange part is that the beatless heart pushes blood around the body in a steady stream, leaving the person without a pulse. Plans are underway to test the device on human patients.

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