Heart & Vascular

WATCH: Heart Tumor Program at Houston Methodist Has Legendary Roots

May 31, 2024 - Eden McCleskey

For decades, Houston Methodist Hospital has transformed the landscape of cardiac care by providing hope for patients battling rare and deadly heart tumor.

Dr. Michael Reardon, the cardiothoracic surgeon who pioneered a revolutionary procedure called cardiac autotransplant surgery alongside his legendary mentor Dr. Denton Cooley, reflects on the evolution of Houston Methodist's groundbreaking program in a new video (click on the photo above to view).

Passing the baton

Cardiac sarcomas are extremely rare, with an incidence rate of approximately 0.0001%. The tumors often necessitate the removal and intricate reconstruction of the patient's heart, a procedure that is as complex as it is unique.

"Very few physicians have ever seen a cardiac sarcoma, much less operated on one," explains Dr. Reardon in the video. "I am now over 70 years old, and I have plans to retire and spend more time with my wife and family. Several years ago, I realized I needed to find and train another surgeon to take over after I step down. Otherwise, people with these kinds of heart tumors might have nowhere to turn."

Dr. Reardon found his heir apparent several years ago in fellow Houston Methodist cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Marvin Atkins. As co-director of the Houston Methodist Cardiac Autotransplant Program, Dr. Atkins is now planning and performing these complex surgeries independently, with Dr. Reardon available to assist as required.

"The thing that convinced me to take on the extraordinary challenge of trying to fill Dr. Reardon's shoes is how completely unique each case is," Dr. Atkins explains. "Every heart tumor that we operate on is different, and each one's extension into different portions of the heart and surrounding organs is unique, and that kind of variety is not usually present for most surgeons who specialize in one part of the body."

The complexity and individuality of each case requires a highly skilled, multidisciplinary team capable of making critical intraoperative decisions.

Legendary roots

The program's origins date back to 1983 when Dr. Cooley, a titan in cardiothoracic surgery, attempted the first procedure. A patient from Italy presented with an inoperable left atrial tumor. Dr. Cooley placed the heart on ice while excising the tumor and then meticulously reconstructed the heart. Although the initial attempt was unsuccessful, it ignited a spark in Dr. Reardon, then a resident trainee, that would later revolutionize cardiac tumor surgery.

In 1998, Dr. Reardon achieved a historic milestone by performing the first successful cardiac autotransplant for a malignant tumor on an 18-year-old patient with a massive left atrial tumor. This groundbreaking procedure demonstrated the viability of this technique and established the foundation for what would become the world's most advanced cardiac tumor program.

The complexity and individuality of each case require a highly skilled, multidisciplinary team capable of making critical intraoperative decisions.

Improving survival rates

The program has significantly improved survival rates for patients with primary cardiac sarcomas. Historical survival rates were bleak, with only about 40% surviving one year and a mere 10% reaching five years. However, using the strategy pioneered by Dr. Reardon — combining neoadjuvant chemotherapy and aggressive surgical resection — the program's one-year survival rate has doubled to 88%, with five-year survival rates reaching approximately 40%.

Despite these remarkable advances, Dr. Atkins acknowledges the ongoing challenges and opportunities for improvement. "It really does take a massive multidisciplinary approach to maximize patient benefit," he says.

As the program continues to evolve, the Houston Methodist team remains committed to refining their techniques and expanding their expertise, maintaining their status as a global leader in cardiac tumor treatment.

"This heart tumor program has been a huge part of my career," says Dr. Reardon. "But I want its legacy to far outlast my own career. That is what we owe future generations of patients faced with this very rare yet very daunting diagnosis."

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Cardiovascular Surgery