UPMC Offers Experimental Treatment for Heart Arrhythmia

By: Sheila Davis

Millions of Americans suffer from arrhythmia, a condition caused when the heart fails to contract – or beat – at the correct timing.  Now, experts at UPMC are looking at a new way of treating these patients with a procedure typically used for cancer patients. UPMC Shadyside is the first hospital in the Pittsburgh area to provide this experimental treatment to patients.

In May 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted “Breakthrough Device Designation” for a system that uses radiation to treat refractory ventricular tachycardia (VT). The FDA designation is a program for specific medical devices that can treat or diagnose “life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating diseases or conditions.”

Traditional treatments for VT include medication and catheter ablation, a procedure using radiofrequency energy to eliminate the abnormal electrical signals that produce fast heart rhythm. However, these treatments can fall short of fixing the problem in up to half of VT patients – many of whom suffer from dizziness, chest pain and defibrillator shocks. VT can also lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death.

“We’re looking at new options to treat these arrhythmias for patients who have tried the conventional therapies and are still having symptoms from VT,” said Dr. Krishna Kancharla, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

That’s where stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) comes in. SBRT, which is typically used to treat malignant tumors, is under experimental use to deliver targeted radiation to the area of the heart that is causing abnormal electrical signals.

“We are essentially trying to stop these abnormal rhythms, similar to catheter ablation. SBRT is noninvasive and can reach a deeper area of the heart that cannot be easily accessed using catheter ablation,” said Dr. Adam Olson, a radiation oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

The Department of Radiation Oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center has used stereotactic radiosurgery for over 25 years to offer effective cancer treatments to patients. Radiation oncologists like Dr. Olson have used SBRT for years to target tumors in the brain, lung, spine and other body areas.

While SBRT is still an experimental treatment for VT, doctors are hopeful that it will help some patients who have failed traditional therapy. And they hope to minimize risks, such as scaring the adjacent areas near the heart, by limiting radiation exposure.

UPMC researchers expect to participate in a worldwide, multi-center study of the treatment that could begin by next year.