Doctors at the University of Virginia are trying out a new form of heart surgery to target people living with leaking heart valves, and they're learning how to do it with the click of a mouse.
Leaking heart valves are commonly caused by either a birth defect or a weakness in the heart muscle, sometimes stemming from a heart attack. For people living with it, life can be rough. It's often marked by chest pain and shortness of breath.
Now, doctors are using what's called a mitraclip. It's a tiny arrow-shaped instrument attached to a catheter. It's designed to fix leaking heart valves, without resorting to full-scale open heart surgery.
"This is all done where the chest is closed while the heart is still beating," UVA cardiologist Scott Lim said.
It works like this: a doctor inserts the catheter through a vein in the leg and feeds it up into the heart. Doctors remotely position the mitraclip over the leak and close it shut. It all happens without stitches.
"This holds quite a bit of promise, but one of the real challenges with this, is it's technically difficult to do," Lim said.
That's where their new computer program comes in. It's called the Mitraclip Virtual Procedure (MVP). It lets doctors perform the procedure on a simulated beating heart.
"This actually is taken from a real person's heart and it's using CAT scan images to recreate this," Lim said.
The program can be installed on multiple laptops, meaning cardiologists in training can learn just about anywhere. Doctors can also load an individual patient's heart scans into the simulator, so they can practice on the computer before doing the real thing.
But Lim says there is a drawback to virtual learning. Some doctors want the tactile feel you can only get from practice on a human cadaver.
"You're not going to get that at present with a computer program," Lim said, "But I think, barring that, this is a fantastic leap forward."
The mitraclip is already widely used in other countries, mostly for older patients who aren't good candidates for open heart surgery. It's still going through clinical trials here in the United States, and UVA is leading that effort. There is no estimated timeline for government approval.
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Derick Waller joined the NBC 29 news team in August, 2010. Prior to this, Derick graduated with degrees in both broadcast journalism and political science from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Email/Follow on Twitter/ Full Story