Health Beat

Health Beat: Light puts hearts in rhythm

Every year, thousands of Americans suffer sudden cardiac arrest. For many, an implantable defibrillator puts the heart's electrical system back in rhythm. It's life-saving, but not perfect.

"If it discharges, then it is very, very painful and feels like a horse kicking you in the chest," said Natalia Trayanova, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"When a large electrical shock is delivered, for example, part of the reason why it's so painful is that it causes all the muscles around the heart to contract," explained Patrick Boyle, an assistant research professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins.

Trayanova and Boyle are working with researchers in Bonn, Germany, and they've found another way. Instead of electricity, they said light may be a better option. The Bonn team tested the theory in animals.

"They did experiments in mice in which they embedded these light sensitive proteins, and they delivered light from the outside of the heart and they were able to terminate or defibrillate the arrhythmia," detailed Trayanova.

The Johns Hopkins team then used a computer model of an actual heart to see if a dose of red light would regulate the much larger human organ, and it does.

"The steps that have been taken in the past few years are major. This is a major milestone," Trayanova said.

Researchers said someday, instead of a major blast to the heart, a gentle light will be all a patient may need.

The Johns Hopkins team envisions a pacemaker-like implantable device that would someday deliver the light pulse from within the body when it senses the person’s heart is out of rhythm.

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