New hope for common heart problem

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
February 22, 2008 4:27:26 PM PST
There is a new tool to stop the recurrence of one of the most common heart problems.Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

One moment you feel fine. The next, your heart is racing at almost double the pace.

Atrial fibrillation affects more than two million Americans. Although it is the most common arrhythmia, medicines for the condition only work about half the time.

Fifty-six-year-old Tom Calvaresi is the driving force behind his family winery. So when his heart started feeling funny, he didn't ignore it.

"I could feel it flutter a bit," he said. "Kind of like if you overuse a muscle, you can feel it jumping around a little bit in your arm. Well, I felt this in my chest."

Doctors diagnosed Tom with atrial fibrillation. It's a condition that occurs when the heart's electrical pulses short-circuit, causing changes to the speed or rhythm of the heartbeat. Left untreated, AF can increase the risk of stroke.

The disorder threatened Tom's livelihood.

"I have to be able to drink wine in order to be in this business and be at the top of my game, and alcohol is one of the triggers," he said.

Right now, surgeons use what is called a catheter ablation to turn pulmonary vein tissue into scar tissue, so electrical pulses can't get through. Doctors make dozens of lesions in a dotted pattern around the vein, but it's not always a success.

Dr. David Callans is testing a new system designed to stop the recurrance of atrial fibrillation using high-intensity focused ultrasound.

"It's deployed on a balloon," he said. "The balloon can fit around the top of the pulmonary veins."

He says with this procedure, the ultrasound is delivered very precisely. Dr. Callans says the symptoms of AF shouldn't come back.

It took three traditional ablation procedures to make Tom's symptoms go away. Now, he says it's good to know a new kind of help may soon be available if his heart problems come back.

Dr. Callans says this clinical trial involving the high-intensity focused ultrasound is the last step before FDA approval. The same technique is already used to treat certain cancers.