Doctors are tackling one of the deadliest heart conditions by using a 100-year-old cancer treatment.
The unlikely remedy involves beaming radiotherapy, used for nearly a century to kill tumours, into the chest to banish a potentially fatal ailment which makes the heart beat up to three times faster than normal.
Tests show the abnormal rhythm can be corrected with a single, pain-free, five-minute blast of radiotherapy – and heart experts pioneering the technique hope it will be a lifeline for those who fail to respond to traditional treatments.
‘This could transform the lives of these patients,’ says Dr Ewen Shepherd, consultant cardiologist involved in trialling radiotherapy for heart problems at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Tests show abnormal heart rhythm can be corrected with a single, pain-free, five-minute blast of radiotherapy – and heart experts pioneering the technique hope it will be a lifeline for those who fail to respond to traditional treatments
Called ventricular tachycardia (VT), the condition is one of the major causes of sudden cardiac death – which kills more than 100,000 in the UK every year.
It is usually triggered by damage to the cardiac muscle during a heart attack, which interferes with the electrical signals that control heart rhythm.
A healthy, resting heart beats at a rate of roughly 60 to 100 beats a minute. But in those with VT, which affects about 66,000 Britons, it can soar to more than 200.
As a result, the left and right ventricles – the two bottom chambers of the heart which pump blood around the body – do not have time to fill with blood between beats. This means there is insufficient blood to pump out to the vital organs, starving them of much-needed oxygen.
In some patients, these attacks last a few seconds and cause few symptoms. But in others they last several minutes and cause palpitations, chest pain, difficulty breathing and light-headedness.
This can lead to another dangerous rhythm problem, called ventricular fibrillation, where the heart rate becomes even more erratic and little or no blood is pumped out. Without prompt treatment, ventricular fibrillation almost always leads to a fatal cardiac arrest.
Called ventricular tachycardia (VT), the condition is one of the major causes of sudden cardiac death – which kills more than 100,000 in the UK every year. (File image)
To avoid this, doctors try to treat the problem as early as possible.
Some patients get better with pills or injections to control heart rhythm. Others need an electric shock to ‘reset’ the heart to its normal rate, or have an implant surgically fitted that resets automatically whenever it goes haywire.
Another popular treatment is catheter ablation, where a thin probe is fed through a blood vessel in the groin and up into the area of the heart where the faulty electrical signals are coming from. The tip of the probe is heated and destroys the muscle cells generating the signals, allowing the heart to return to its normal rhythm.
But it’s risky, lengthy heart surgery and it doesn’t always work.
Now new research from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis shows that racing heart rate episodes dropped 94 per cent in the six months after a single radiotherapy treatment.
Two years later, 78 per cent of volunteers were still free of problems. The dose involved was similar to that given to patients with early-stage lung tumours.
Raymond Brown, 69, from Corby Hill, near Carlisle, was one of the first patients in the UK to benefit.
At 38, he suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest – where the heart stops beating altogether – which left it permanently damaged. Over the years, his health declined and he had several ablation treatments, as well as a triple heart bypass. But the problems kept returning, and last month he was offered the radiotherapy.
Grandfather-of-three Raymond says: ‘I jumped at it as I was running out of options. Sometimes my heart would beat up to 230 times a minute – and that could last three hours at a time. It was terrifying.’
Doctors took a CT scan to pinpoint the area to treat and painted three dots in a triangle on Raymond’s chest to act as target for the high-dose radiotherapy beam to hit the correct spot on his heart.
‘I didn’t feel a thing, and half an hour later I was told I could go home,’ says Raymond, who had the treatment in January. ‘I feel better already and have not had any palpitations for several weeks.’
It’s thought that, like ablation, the radiotherapy destroys the cardiac 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 being used for patients who have not responded to anything else.’