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‘Space hairdryer’ regenerates heart tissue during research

Gentle shock waves could regenerate the heart tissue of patients after bypass surgery, research suggests.

A study of 63 people in Austria found that those who received the new treatment were able to walk further – and their hearts were able to pump more blood.

“For the first time we see heart muscle regenerating in a clinical setting, which could help millions of people,” says Prof. Johannes Holfeld of the Medical University of Innsbruck.

Larger trials of the device, dubbed a ‘space hairdryer’ by researchers, are now planned to try to replicate the results in a wider group of patients.

Blocked artery

According to the World Health Organization, 18 million people around the world die every year from heart disease or other cardiovascular complications.

Risk factors include high blood pressure and an unhealthy diet, as well as tobacco and alcohol use.

There is no cure for what is the leading cause of death worldwide.

Medicines and other treatments can help control the disease and reduce the chance of a heart attack, where blood flow to the organ is suddenly blocked.

In severe cases, surgeons take a healthy blood vessel from the chest, leg or arm and attach it to the area of ​​the heart above and below the blocked artery – a procedure known as a heart bypass.

But this type of surgery can only preserve heart function rather than improve it.

Researchers in Austria have attempted to regenerate the damaged tissue themselves by applying mild sound waves shortly after bypass surgery.

The procedure, which takes about 10 minutes, is intended to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels around the area that has been damaged or scarred after a heart attack.

A similar “shockwave” technique is already used to treat other conditions, such as injured tendons and ligaments, and erectile dysfunction.

Higher strength waves or pulses are also used in lithotripsy, a common medical procedure to break up kidney stones.

Photo by Prof. Johannes HolfeldPhoto by Prof. Johannes Holfeld

Prof Johannes Holfeld leads the team in Innsbruck and uses shockwave therapy to treat heart disease. (BBC)

Half of the bypass patients in the study, published in the European Heart Journal, were treated with sound waves under general anesthesia, while the others received a sham procedure.

One year after their surgery, the amount of oxygen-rich blood pumped by the heart had increased by:

The shockwave patients were also able to walk further without resting and reported a higher quality of life.

“It means that they can go for a walk with their dog or to the supermarket again in their daily lives,” says Prof. Holfeld.

“We also expect that they will have a longer life expectancy and fewer readmissions.”

Photo of the shock wave devicePhoto of the shock wave device

Bypass surgeons used the “space hair dryer” to apply mild shock waves (BBC).

British Heart Foundation medical director Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, a consultant cardiologist, said current treatment for heart disease leaves “much room for improvement”.

“What’s exciting about this trial is that people who received heart shockwave therapy during their surgery a year later had better heart function and fewer symptoms than those who didn’t,” she said.

“Larger and longer studies are now needed to investigate the long-term effects.”

The researchers expect European regulators to approve the device later this year, with first use in patients outside clinical trials planned for 2025.

The study was funded by Austrian government agencies, the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and a company spun off from Innsbruck Medical University and partly owned by the researchers.

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