Scientists and the giant pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Novartis, Bayer and Johnson & Johnson, are not exactly racing for a cure for heart diseases. Unlike most other diseases, heart disease is not virus or bacteria based, so it cannot be instantly cured by a single medication or vaccine. However, science and modern medicine are chasing after an alternative approach to tackling this illness: predicting heart attacks before they happen.
There is a paramount need for this and indeed a greater sense of urgency, given the fact that heart failure now affects over 26 million people worldwide, making it one of the planet's biggest health challenges.
Positive medical advances are being made in this heart direction. Scientific results presented at the last American Heart Association annual meeting in New Orleans, USA, revealed a discovery in the use of sensors to predict heart failure events by detecting when a patient's condition is deteriorating. Hospitalizations and re-admissions from heart failures have not significantly reduced despite ongoing efforts to manage heart failure by monitoring weight and symptoms.
John Boehmer, a cardiologist and professor of medicine, Penn State College of Medicine and a group of international medical researchers, have been investigating if the conditions of heart failure patients can be more accurately tracked, as well as examining the methods that the implantable devices already used in the patients could be modified with special sensors.
At the inception of the study, 900 heart failure patients, each fitted with a defibrillator, had an additional sensor software applied to monitor the patient's heart activity, heart sounds, heart rate, and their chest's electrical activity. If the patient experiences a sudden heart arrest, the battery-powered defibrillator relays an electric shock which can be monitored and analyzed in real-time.
Within the research time frame, this special regime of sensors successfully spotted 70 percent of sudden heart attacks, about 30 days in advance in the patients being investigated. This far surpassed the team's 40 percent detection goal. The heart attack detection system, which scientifically monitors the movements and activities of the heart, and aptly named HeartLogic, was created by Boston Scientific. The medical technology discovery will go a long way in helping to identify fatal heart attacks before they occur. Further studies, trials, and adoption by the wider medical community are being planned.
Prevention before the cure and hope is rising
Inducible pluripotent stem (iPSCS) cells is a futuristic stem cell and tissue engineering technology that is being pioneered by scientists in the UK at the British Heart Foundation. It is an in-depth study of the heart cells and the entire behavioral system of the human heart, to modify undesirable heart behavior patterns when necessary. It involves a highly sophisticated medical laboratory procedure that enables the scientists to change patients' regular stem cells into heart cells, thereby virtually creating a new heart muscle in the failing heart. Sian Harding, the Professor of Cardiac Pharmacology at Imperial College is on the leadership team of this major heart study.
"While heart disease is striking later and later in life, with today's medical advances and so many persons taking better care of themselves, new discoveries are sure to come to create the opportunity for longer and healthier lives," said Gregory Thomas, M.D., Medical Director, Memorial Care Heart and Vascular Institute at Long Beach (CA) Memorial Medical Center.
The latest studies include the evaluation of the genes of ancient mummies to examine the genetic causes of atherosclerosis inherent to being human. Dr. Thomas pointed out, "This could provide insights on how to stall or reverse the course of atherosclerosis today. For hearts that have failed, artificial hearts will be commonplace. A totally mechanical heart with a power source in the body will power the heart. Heart transplants will be replaced by this machine, the size of a large fist."
Calgary, Alberta-based physician, Dr. Chinyem Dzawanda of the Health Watch Medical Clinic takes a more proactive management approach. She stated that people with cardiovascular disease require regular monitoring to prevent a worsening of symptoms. Hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and hyperlipidemia are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. People with the presence of one or more risk factors will require close monitoring and treatment of these risk factors with medication and lifestyle/dietary modifications to prevent progression to cardiovascular disease. Self-responsibility is crucial."
Health burden with a US$1,044 billion price tag!
Heart-related diseases and heart failure are the number one cause of death globally. More people die annually from heart attacks than from any other cause. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 alone, over 17.5 million people died from cardiovascular heart disease, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, an estimated 6.7 million were due to stroke, while 7.4 million resulted from coronary heart disease. Heart disease is also the number one killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined.
In Canada, heart disease is one of the biggest burdens in the health sector. More than 1.6 million Canadians are reported to have heart disease. It claimed almost 50,000 lives in 2012, and it remains the country's second leading cause of death. The Government of Canada also revealed that nine in 10 Canadians over the age of 20 have at least one risk factor for heart disease, while four in 10 have three or more risk factors.
A new experimental anticancer drug that may tackle heart disease is also already in the pipeline. A cardiovascular research study by a team from Stanford University is finding a way to detect the harmful body cells hiding from the immune system. Nicholas Leeper, a vascular biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and senior author on the new study, informed the Science Journal that, the drug which can target the fatty deposits damage an artery wall, has already shown encouraging results in non-human primate trials. This is another source of hope in the treatment of heart disease.
Economics and medicine are closely tied together. Heart disease and fatal heart attacks pose a major burden to society in both human and economic terms. Worse, it isn't disappearing anytime soon, as heart disease has no instant cure. The World Heart Foundation alerted that by 2030 the total global cost of heart diseases is set to rise from approximately US$863 billion in 2010 to a staggering US$1,044 billion.
Health Departments around the world are campaigning aggressively for the adoption of healthy heart habits, regular exercises, and heart-friendly diets as preventive strategies against heart disease. The age old maxim that prevention is better than cure will always ring true. Combining this proactive positioning with the notable advancement in medical research will go a long way in reducing the burden of heart disease. The ability to predict a heart attack before it comes will be another crucial arsenal in the global health battle.