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New surgical procedure for common heart problem now available in Houston

Houston, TX - 2/28/2005

Surgeons at The Methodist Hospital in Houston are the first in the southern United States to utilize a new high intensity focused ultrasound that destroys the heart tissue causing atrial fibrillation (AF), a common heart disorder affecting an estimated 6 million people worldwide.

AF is erratic beating caused by an electrical problem in the heart, responsible for 15 percent of strokes in people over the age of 75. AF is responsible for more than 70,000 strokes each year in this country, with an estimated cost of $6.6 billion spent each year for medications, physicians and hospitalizations.

In the minute-long procedure, a clamp-like device is placed on the outside of a beating heart to deliver energy across the heart wall. This destroys tissue in a manner that is much less invasive than previous surgical procedures. Physicians do not need to place the patient on a cardiopulmonary bypass system and arrest the heart.

“This procedure burns the problem spot that is causing the electrical problem in the heart, with a cure rate of as high as 80 percent,” said Dr. J.C. Walkes, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center. “We are excited about the opportunity to offer what we believe to be the most permanent and effective means to treat atrial fibrillation available.”

By isolating the source of the fibrillation and destroying that heart tissue, physician break up the electrical pathway causing the rhythm problem. Instead of the pervious method of surgically cutting the problem spot, HIFU allows surgeons to burn the “circuit” from the outside of the heart by placing a small device around the pulmonary veins, the veins that bring oxygen from the lungs to the heart.

Most patients with AF must be on blood thinners to prevent the formation of clots, which can lead to strokes. These blood thinners are not ideal if taken over a long period of time because they can increase the chance of bleeding episodes. Walkes said the ultrasound treatment is attractive because it provides a potentially permanent solution.

“The benefits of permanently fixing atrial fibrillation are worth the having the surgery, even if the patient has no other existing heart problems,” he said.