Shockwave-shooting ‘space hairdryer’ regrows heart tissue in patients

It turns out that blasting people with shockwaves during open-heart surgery is a really good idea. That’s what researchers found who used the technique to reactivate heart cells and improve the post-op lives of patients in a groundbreaking study.

Shockwaves are specific sound-pressure waves tuned to achieve a certain effect. In medicine, they’ve been used for everything from breaking up kidney stones to helping damaged tendons to heal. In a study at Austria’s Medical University of Innsbruck, researchers found that they were able to tune the shockwaves from a handheld device to blast tiny bubble-like structures called vesicles off of cellular surfaces. This caused the activation of an immune-system receptor called TLR-3. When applied during open-heart bypass surgery, the results were impressive.

“We were able to demonstrate that effects are mediated via this receptor that lead, on the one hand, to connective tissue cells being converted into vascular wall cells and, on the other hand, to new blood vessels being formed,” said lead researcher, Johannes Holfeld. “This means that new blood vessels sprout into the chronically undersupplied heart muscle, which in turn actively contributes to the heart’s pumping performance.”

In other words, the technique not only helped new blood vessels form, it also reactivated heart muscle cells that go dormant during a heart attack, depriving certain areas of the heart of blood. This led to a boost in the heart’s pumping performance.

“We know that every five percentage points improvement in pumping performance leads to a significant reduction in hospital readmissions and an extension of life expectancy,” said Holfeld. “Our method has shown an average improvement of almost twelve percentage points. That is spectacular.”

In conducting the study, the researchers divided 63 patients into two groups: one that had a standard bypass operation, and the other that had the same operation with the addition of shockwaves. Thanks to the regenerating effects of the shockwave treatment, those who received about 10 minutes of treatment during their surgery wound up recovering much more strongly than those who didn’t get it. A year after the procedure, the shockwave group could walk about 100 meters (about 110 yards) farther than the non-shockwave group during a six-minute period. They also reported a better overall quality of life.

The researchers say that more than one-third of heart failure patients will be able to benefit from the treatment. They’ve developed a spin-off company called Heart Regeneration Technologies to develop the device that delivers the shockwaves which, the BBC reports, the team dubbed a “space hairdryer.” Holfeld says the device should come on the market sometime in 2025.

The research has been published in the European Heart Journal.

Source: Medical University of Innsbruck

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