Doctors tackle one of the deadliest heart conditions with 100-year cancer treatment.
The unlikely remedy includes radiation therapy, used for nearly a century to kill tumors, in the breast to eliminate a potentially fatal condition that causes the heart to beat three times faster than normal.
Tests show that the abnormal rhythm can be corrected with a single, pain-free, five-minute radiotherapy – and heart experts who pioneer the technique, hope it is a lifeline for those who do not respond to traditional treatments.
“This could change the lives of these patients,” says Dr. Ewen Shepherd, consultant cardiologist who is involved in testing radiotherapy for heart problems at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Tests show that an abnormal heart rhythm can be corrected with a single, pain-free, five-minute radiotherapy – and heart experts pioneering with the technique hope that it is a lifeline for those who do not respond to traditional treatments
The condition is called ventricular tachycardia (VT) and is one of the leading causes of sudden cardiac death – which kills more than 100,000 in the UK every year.
It is usually caused by damage to the heart muscle during a heart attack, which interferes with the electrical signals that control the heart rhythm.
A healthy, resting heart beats at a speed of approximately 60 to 100 beats per minute. But for people with VT, which affects around 66,000 Britons, it can rise to more than 200.
As a result, the left and right ventricles – the two lower chambers of the heart pumping blood through the body – have no time to fill with blood between beats. This means that there is not enough blood to pump to the vital organs, giving them much needed oxygen.
In some patients, these attacks last a few seconds and cause few symptoms. But for others they last for a few minutes and cause heart palpitations, chest pain, breathing problems and light-headedness.
This can lead to another dangerous rhythm problem, called ventricular fibrillation, where the heartbeat becomes even more irregular and little or no blood is pumped away. Without prompt treatment, ventricular fibrillation almost always leads to a fatal cardiac arrest.
The condition is called ventricular tachycardia (VT) and is one of the leading causes of sudden cardiac death – which kills more than 100,000 in the UK every year. (File image)
To prevent this, doctors try to treat the problem as early as possible.
Some patients get better with pills or injections to control the heart rhythm. Others need an electrical shock to “reset” the heart to its normal speed or have a surgical implant that resets automatically when it becomes confused.
Another popular treatment is catheter ablation, where a thin probe is passed through a blood vessel in the groin and up into the area of the heart where the defective electrical signals are coming from. The probe tip is heated and destroys the muscle cells that generate the signals, returning the heart to its normal rhythm.
But it’s a risky, long-term heart surgery and it doesn’t always work.
Now, new research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows that race heart rate episodes dropped 94 percent in the six months following a single radiotherapy treatment.
Two years later, 78 percent of the volunteers were still free of problems. The dose involved was comparable to that given to patients with early-stage lung tumors.
Raymond Brown, 69, from Corby Hill, near Carlisle, was one of the first patients in the UK to benefit from this.
At the age of 38 he suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest – in which the heart stops beating completely – causing permanent damage. Over the years, his health deteriorated and he received various ablation treatments, as well as a triple cardiac diversion. But the problems returned and he was offered radiotherapy last month.
Raymond’s grandfather says: “I jumped into it when I had no options. Sometimes my heart was beating up to 230 times per minute – and that could take three hours at a time. It was frightening. “
Doctors took a CT scan to locate the area to be treated and painted three dots in a triangle on Raymond’s chest to serve as a target for the high dose of radiotherapy to hit the right spot on his heart.
“I felt nothing and half an hour later I was told that I could go home,” says Raymond, who received the treatment in January. “I’ve been feeling better and haven’t had heart palpitations for several weeks.”
It is thought that, just like ablation, radiotherapy destroys the heart cells that generate rogue signals.
But Dr. Shepherd warns: “It does have side effects – patients often feel very tired for a few days afterwards. And there is a risk of damage to the lungs, ribs and stomach.
“For now, this treatment is only used for patients who have not responded to anything else.”