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A simple fabric device that looks like fishnet hose but acts like support stockings helped weak hearts pump more efficiently and even shrink back to a more normal size, researchers reported at an American Heart Association conference.
The device is targeted at people with heart failure, which happens when a weak or damaged heart can't pump as forcefully as it should. The heart enlarges, fluid backs up into the lungs, and people get more and more short of breath and tired, often making many trips to the hospital until their hearts eventually give out.
About five million Americans have this condition and more than one million have the type that might be helped by the new stocking-like device.
The mesh stocking is still experimental but its maker, Acorn Cardiovascular Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., already has approval to sell it in Europe and will seek the same from the Food and Drug Administration next year.
Several experts said Sunday that the surgically implanted stocking could fill a gap for people who were not helped by drugs or pacemakers and who did not want or could not have a mechanical heart pump or an organ transplant.
"We have little to offer surgically," says Dr. Timothy Gardner, a heart surgeon from the University of Pennsylvania who had no role in the study. "There's a lot of interest in this kind of simple technique."
Dr. Douglas Mann, the Baylor College of Medicine cardiologist who led a study of the device, called it "breakthrough technology."
The company-sponsored study included 300 patients at 28 hospitals in the United States and one in Canada.
One part involved 193 people having surgery to fix a leaky heart valve, a common problem in heart failure patients. Doctors gave 102 standard surgery and the other 91 surgery plus the heart stocking.
The second part of the study involved 107 people who did not need valve surgery. Fifty were given standard treatment drugs, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers and water pills, and the other 57 got drugs plus surgery to install the stocking.
After an average of two years, 38 percent of the stocking group had improved compared with 27 percent of the others, according to a rating system including survival and other factors. About 37 percent with the stocking got worse compared to 45 percent of the others.
Only 19 stocking recipients needed a transplant, a mechanical heart pump or other major heart operation, but 33 in the other group did.
"We think this stabilizes the disease process by relieving the pressure on the heart and giving it support so it can rest between beats,” Mann adds.
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