Heart attack survivors face a frightening gamble. Having a small defibrillator implanted could save them from deadly arrhythmias, but that treatment carries risks. Plus it's invasive and expensive.
Now a new painless virtual 3-D heart test developed at Johns Hopkins University can accurately predict which patients are at risk of sudden death, making the decision easier.
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The test, called a virtual heart arrhythmia risk predictor or VARP for short, was invented by a Johns Hopkins University team led by biomedical engineering professor Natalia Trayanova.
She enlisted cardiologist Katherine Wu to help develop virtual 3-D computer heart modeling for heart attack survivors who had damaged cardiac tissue.
Normally doctors assess these patients by seeing how much blood is being pumped out of their hearts in a measurement known as an ejection fraction. Doctors recommend that patients in a certain range get defibrillators put in, but the Johns Hopkins team consider this approach to be imprecise and flawed, according to a university press release. Yikes.
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Instead, their virtual predictor takes a patient's MRI scans to build a personalized digital replica of the heart. Then the computer model is "brought to life" with electrical impulses that simulate how that uniquely damaged heart functions.
Using records from 41 real patients who were all ultimately given implants, the team found that some virtual hearts developed arrhythmia while others didn't.
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Comparing those results with what actually happened to the patients after they got defibrillators implanted, the team discovered that their virtual test predicted arrhythmia four to five times better than existing risk predictors. The proof-of-concept study was just published in the journal Nature Communications.
This non-invasive virtual predictor could help avoid unnecessary implants and prevent heart attack death for at-risk patients, the researchers say. Next, they plan to do additional tests on larger groups of heart patients. The virtual heart will go on.