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Reposted with permission; originally posted in the 2015 spring edition of Cardiac Advantage

Traditional treatment for severe aortic stenosis – a narrowing of the valve that allows blood to flow from the heart to the body- has been to open the chest, remove the fault valve and replace it with a new one.

Many patients are too sick or too frail to tolerate open-heart surgery. “For a long time, we had little to offer patients with severe aortic stenosis if they were unable to undergo open heart surgery because of their age and/or the severity of their medical condition,” said cardiothoracic surgeon Andrew Pruitt, MD, at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor. “Now there is new hope. In August 2012, we began performing an exciting new procedure, transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), that is holding great promise for patients who formerly had no options.”

Some people with aortic stenosis have no symptoms at all, but for most patients symptoms include: shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty exercising or performing other strenuous tasks, chest pain, lightheadedness or fainting.

“In its earlier stages, aortic stenosis can be treated with medication, but in more advanced form traditional surgery, and now, TAVR are the only options.”

How does TAVR work? The surgeon makes an incision in the groin (transfermorally) or through a space in the rib cage (transpically) and threads a catheter into the blood vessel to reach the aortic valve. A balloon on the end of the catheter is inflated forcing open the stiff leaflets of the damaged aortic valve. This leaves room to replace the original catheter with a second one. The second catheter not only has a balloon on the end, but also a compressed replacement valve. The replacement valve is made of cow heart tissue that is sewn onto an expandable stainless steel stent. The new valve is placed on the center of the disease valve and then expanded into proper position with the aid of the balloon. Physicians can choose replacement valves to fit a wide range of patient sizes.

A key advantage is that the procedure is performed on a beating heart and the patient does not have to put on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, so it is far less stressful for the body. The transfemoral approach usually requires about three hours to complete; the transapical about 30 minutes less.

Developed in 2000 by a French cardiologist, TAVR was approved for use in the United States in 2011, slightly ahead of schedule when clinical trials proved remarkably successful.

However, TAVR is still relatively new and not without risk. “Currently, this approach is limited to patients who must meet very specific criteria,” said Dr. Pruitt. “TAVR brings with it its own set of side effects and has as slightly higher rate of certain complications than traditional, open-heart surgery. The FDA has only approved its use for patients with severe, symptomatic aortic stenosis who are felt to be inoperable, or at very high risk for traditional surgery by two independent cardiac surgeons.”

In addition, potential candidates must undergo a series of test to determine if they meet the physical and medical parameters to accept the device safely. “We very carefully have to weigh risks versus benefits, and for those patients who cannot tolerate open-heart surgery, TAVR can be a life saver,” said Dr. Pruitt. “TAVR not only extends patients’ lives, it can significantly improve their quality of life.”

Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons at St. Joe underwent intensive training to learn this new surgical procedure. Based on the high volume of surgeries conducted here, the expertise of our physicians and staff, and the collaborative multidisciplinary heart team that evaluates all potential cases, patients who qualify for TAVR can feel confident in the skill level and experience of their heart team.

“The message to prospective patients and their referring physicians is this: Don’t give up hope. Even for the frailest patients with extremely advanced conditions, we can offer solutions and relief,” said Dr. Pruitt. “In cases where TAVR is an option, it literally can mean the difference between life and death.”