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YOUR HEALTH: Using radiation to help the heart beat

Doctors are testing an experimental "one and done" treatment to lessen the risk of heart failure

PITTSBURGH — One in 18 people, or 5% of Americans, has arrhythmia, a condition where the heart fails to beat at the correct time. 

Now, doctors are testing a new treatment for patients with a severe type of arrhythmia that starts in the bottom chambers of the heart.

"Ventricular tachycardia is basically a description of the heart rate going fast, typically over a hundred beats a minute, but usually really over 200 beats per minute," explained Dr. Krishna Kancharla, Cardiac Electrophysiologist at UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

Ventricular tachycardia, or VT, is commonly treated with medication or a procedure called catheter ablation to stop the electrical signals causing the abnormal heartbeat. 

But neither treatment is perfect.

"I can tell you that at least up to 40 percent of the patients five years after receiving traditional therapy will have recurrences," said explained Dr. Kancharla. 

Doctors are testing stereotactic body radiation therapy, or SBRT, on VT patients after other methods fail. 

Doctors determine the precise area producing the abnormal signals, then deliver the radiation.

"This treatment is only done in one treatment as opposed to some of the other uses of SBRT where we would do something like three or five treatments," explained radiation oncologist Dr. Adam Olson.

"We just do it all at once."

Doctors say treating the area just once will minimize radiation risk. 

An experimental therapy that may put the heart back into rhythm in one outpatient visit.  

New Technology from St. Louis

The most recent research on ventricular tachycardia comes from the Washington University School of Medicine.

The researchers suggest that radiation therapy can reprogram heart muscle cells to what appears to be a younger state. 

This means they can fix electrical problems that cause life threatening issues without the need for an invasive procedure. 

A catheter ablation is what is traditionally used to treat ventricular tachycardia; it is threaded into the heart and the tissue that is triggering the arrythmia is burned so that a scar will block the errant signals. 

Now, studies show that radiation normally used to treat cancer, can reprogram the heart muscle cells to a younger and perhaps healthier state, fixing the electrical problem in the cells themselves without needing scar tissue to block the overactive circuits.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.