New heart valve replacement technique

October 26, 2010 3:10:40 PM PDT
A narrow aortic valve is a very common problem as people age. Replacement is done with open-heart surgery. However, for 80 and 90 year olds, other illnesses complicate this approach. It can be a death sentence. Until now, a new technique can replace the valve without surgery, even in younger patients.

61-year-old Bill Canale was told a couple years ago that no surgery could be done to fix his narrowed aortic heart valve. He was in heart failure by the beginning of 2010.

"I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't take a shower without oxygen," Bill Canale said.

He would be dead now, if Dr. Martin Leon had not put in a new heart valve, not by surgery, but on the tip of a balloon catheter threaded up to his heart from his groin artery.

"This is truly a breakthrough for extreme patients who have narrowed aortic valves who don't have good options for treatment," said Dr. Martin Leon from NY Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University.

Generally, they are the elderly with other major medical problems, too sick for surgery.

But, not for the balloon valve. It passes through the heart, with its collapsed valve placed right into the center of the bad one. Doctors blow up the balloon, which expands the valve into place pushing the old valve aside.

A study by Dr. Leon found an almost 50% reduction in the death rate compared to standard surgery in these high-risk patients.

However, there were complications. There was a fives time higher risk of stroke and a 16 times higher risk of damage to the blood vessels in the groin.

Dr. Leon says he and others are currently addressing these problems. Meanwhile, the new valve means patients will live when they otherwise would die.

"It's very meaningful to us as doctors to do a procedure that will dramatically prolong their lives and make the quality of their lives better," Dr. Leon said.

It meant Bill's life is starting all over again.

"It's changed my birthday from April 2 to July 22. That's when I had the procedure," Canale said.