Post-op treatment for heart irregularity shows promise

Atrial fibrillation — one of the most common and least manageable postoperative complications of heart surgery — may soon have an effective treatment.

Ralph Damiano
Ralph Damiano

In laboratory tests in dogs, cardiac researchers at the School of Medicine have found that treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs after heart surgery may lessen or prevent atrial fibrillation.

The findings were reported in the June 7 issue of Circulation.

Atrial fibrillation, a rapid, irregular twitching of the upper chambers of the heart, occurs in a quarter to half of patients who undergo heart surgeries such as coronary bypass or valve replacement. The condition can lead to serious postoperative complications, including congestive heart failure or stroke.

“Patients have suffered postoperative atrial fibrillation since the early days of cardiac surgery, and while beta-blockers — drugs used to prevent abnormal heart rhythms — seem to reduce the incidence, there has been no cure,” said senior author Ralph J. Damiano Jr., M.D., the John Schoenberg Professor of Surgery. “Our research suggests inflammation is the cause of postoperative atrial fibrillation, and this gives us new options for preventative therapy.”

The researchers investigated the effects of heart surgery in dogs. They found that the severity of atrial fibrillation corresponded to the amount of inflammation in surgically treated heart tissue. Inflammation led to changes in the electrical properties of the atria.

The inflammatory response consists of alterations in blood flow, increased permeability of blood vessels and escape of cells from the blood into the tissues. It is a normal response of tissue to injury that speeds the healing process in most instances.

“We found that inflammation led to nonuniform conduction of electrical impulses in the atria,” Damiano said. “There were areas of very slow conduction and areas of normal conduction. The result was chaotic contractions of the atria.”

Anti-inflammatory therapy increased the uniformity of the conduction of electrical impulses and decreased the incidence of atrial fibrillation.

The researchers will continue their studies in dogs and attempt to block inflammation of heart tissue while preserving normal inflammatory response in the rest of the body.

“Our hope is that we can soon bring this treatment to the operating room and eliminate one of the major complications of heart surgery,” Damiano said.