WEDNESDAY, Feb. 27 (HealthDay News) -- If your heart doesn't
beat correctly, you can get an electronic pacemaker and live
happily ever after -- or at least until it wears out and you need
Now, the results of an animal study add to existing evidence
that people may one day have an alternative to living out their
days with an electronic device implanted in their chests: gene
The research, reported recently in the
Journal of the American College of Cardiology, is
preliminary and was performed only in dogs with heart trouble. It's
too early to know if a similar strategy would work in humans, how
long it would last and if the costs and side effects would be
"It's not something I would expect to be working in the short term," said Matteo Vatta, director of the cardiovascular genetics section at Indiana University, who co-wrote a commentary about the findings. Still, he said, "it's not impossible to think about a biological pacemaker."
So what's wrong with traditional pacemakers, which have been
around for decades and now often come with defibrillators to shock
the heart into a steady rhythm if necessary? They can cause side
effects, Vatta said, and require surgery that can spawn
In the new study, researchers induced heart problems in 24 dogs,
implanted electronic pacemakers in them and then injected a
gene-carrying virus into their hearts. The researchers found that
the hearts of some of the dogs were able to beat properly without
needing the pacemakers to kick into gear.
Dr. Steven Pogwizd, a professor of cardiac arrhythmia research
at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the study's
findings show promise.
"Ultimately, the goal of a pacemaker is to replicate the normal electrical activation of the heart as closely as possible, and this approach may have the potential to do so," Pogwizd said.
Vatta said the study is promising because the gene-therapy
approach allows the heart to beat at more normal rates than
electronic pacemakers do.
Also, he said, it shows that targeting the heart's electronic
system, instead of the heart muscle, is possible. This may help
show researchers where to target the gene-therapy treatment in the
future, he said.
But there are challenges, Vatta added. For one, a gene-based
pacemaker would have to perform better than existing electronic
pacemakers, which have "a long track record and a well-established
safety and durability profile," he said. Also, electronic
pacemakers can control the upper and lower chambers of the heart;
gene-based pacemakers cannot do that, he said.
"It is also unclear how the sophisticated programmability that modern electronic pacemakers currently have will be achieved by biological pacemakers," Vatta said.
For now, Pogwizd said, more research is needed to examine issues
like effectiveness, safety and durability. Still, the gene approach
offers the prospect of a treatment that could replace electronic
pacemakers or be used as part of a hybrid treatment with them, he
For more about
pacemakers, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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