Stereotaxis like GPS for the Heart


Dr. Alfredo Pantano and University Hospital Foundation donor Robert Huff in the stereotaxis lab

Daniel Ash says they felt like 'storms' in his heart.

Without warning, the St. Albert resident’s heart would start to beat rapidly until his pacemaker restored a normal heart rate. And this would happen as often as 200 times a day.  Those days are now over following a cardiac procedure at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute that uses new technology to help cardiac specialists make repairs with unprecedented precision.

The $1.5-million Stereotaxis system at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute uses magnetism to move a catheter around the chambers of the heart with pinpoint accuracy. Doctors guide the catheter with a joystick and push-button controls, and watch their work on a display that uses X-rays and three-dimensional mapping technology to create a virtual image of the patient’s heart, inside and out.

Dr. Robert Welsh, director of the Cardiac Catheter Lab, says the technology gives patients better odds for a positive outcome.  "Stereotaxis lets you deliver your equipment in places that were practically impossible, or at least very challenging, before," he says.

During a Stereotaxis procedure, the patient – awake but sedated – is positioned between two magnetic towers. A wire-like catheter, with a magnet in its tip, is inserted into a groin artery and fed to the heart. The catheter can bend around or hug the curved walls of a beating heart to gather the exact electrical readings needed to pinpoint the spot where a "short-circuit" is causing the patient’s arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

The catheter can also deliver a burst of high-frequency sound to cauterize the trouble spot and restore a normal heartbeat. This procedure, known as cardiac ablation, can take between three and five hours. Afterwards, most patients are kept 12 hours for observation.

Ash, 64, underwent an ablation procedure in June.  "I don't know much about the technology but, whatever they did, however they did it, it's working for me right now," says Ash. "I certainly feel better today than I've felt for most of two years."

Stereotaxis is also used for angioplasty and stent procedures — to unblock coronary arteries or insert slender tubes into blood vessels to restore healthy blood flow, respectively.

Dr. David Johnstone, the Institute's clinical director, likens the system's ability to zero in on heart trouble spots to that of a laser-guided projectile.  "You have to be a good pilot to deliver the missile and we have good pilots here," he says.

Since May 2009, the Mazankowski research team has performed 72 clinical procedures on the Stereotaxis system, mostly for cardiac ablations, an average of one surgery a week.

"A decade ago, I couldn't believe we would be able to operate by remote control. But now it's real," says Dr. Alfredo Pantano, who specializes in electrical activity in the body, particularly as it relates to rhythm disturbances of the heart.  Pantano is driving local research to determine the best uses for the technology.

What helped to make this research possible was a donation through the University Hospital Foundation from retired farmer/businessman Robert Huff, 83.  "I think Alberta Health and the recognition we have here with the University Hospital and our facilities in Alberta is second to none in the world," says Huff.

Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa are the only Canadian cities with Stereotaxis systems.


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