March 12, 2006

Study: Procedure beats drugs for heart flutter

By Lisa Richwine

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Creating circles of scar tissue in the
heart worked better than drugs for treating a type of abnormal
heart beat that afflicts millions, Italian researchers reported
on Sunday.

Atrial fibrillation, or heart flutter, is the most common
form of unusual heart rhythm, afflicting about 2.3 million
Americans. It is usually treated with various medications to
ease symptoms and prevent complications such as fainting and
shortness of breath.

In a new study, researchers compared drug therapy with a
procedure that involved threading a catheter into the left side
of the heart and delivering radio waves to targeted areas.

They used the energy to create circular patterns of scar
tissue around each of four veins where abnormal electrical
activity originates, a process known as ablation. The scar
tissue prevents electrical pulses from escaping into the left
upper chamber of the heart, the researchers said.

Doctors also created two lesions in the back wall of the
heart's left upper chamber and one near a valve that separates
the left upper and lower chambers.

Results from 99 patients showed 84 percent had normal heart
rhythms for nine months after the ablation procedure, compared
with 23 percent of those who took generic medications such as
amiodarone or sotalol.

Nine percent of ablation patients required repeat
procedures for irregular heart beats during the nine-month
follow-up period, the researchers said.

"This study convincingly demonstrates superior efficacy
with catheter ablation," said Dr. Carlo Pappone, chief of
cardiac pacing and electrophysiology at San Raffaele University
Hospital in Milan.

Pappone presented the findings at a meeting of the American
College of Cardiology.

His team said patients with atrial fibrillation should be
offered the ablation procedures at highly trained centers.

Other researchers reported Sunday that taking Pfizer Inc.'s
cholesterol-lowering medicine Lipitor one week before heart
surgery may reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation after the

About 40 percent to 50 percent of patients develop the
abnormal heart rhythm after bypass or heart-valve surgery,
increasing the risk of complications and lengthening hospital

In the study of 200 patients, 35 percent of patients who
took Lipitor experienced atrial fibrillation while in hospital
after surgery, compared with 57 percent who got a placebo.

Lipitor, known generically as atorvastatin, is part of the
widely used class of drugs called statins. The researchers,
from the University of Rome, said the anti-inflammatory effects
of Lipitor might have helped prevent the abnormal heart beats.