June 28, 2017 7:24 pm
Updated: June 28, 2017 7:29 pm

Calgary researchers helping to find a better way to treat a deadly heart defect

WATCH: Millions of Canadians suffering from a dangerous heart condition could soon have a better treatment option. As Heather Yourex-West explains, researchers in Calgary believe new technology will save thousands of lives.

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Actor John Ritter was just 54 years old when he died suddenly in 2003 and Bill Paxton was 61 when he passed away earlier this year. Both men died from complications related to a congenital heart defect that impacts millions of people across North America, known as bicuspid aortic valve (BAV).

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“The aortic valve is the valve that lets the blood out of the heart with every heartbeat,” said Dr. Paul Fedak, a clinical researcher with the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. “Most people have a three-flap valve, but some people–about one to two per cent of the population–are born with a two-flap valve.”

READ MORE: Here’s why even mild heart defects may affect kids school performance 

Over time, people with BAV become vulnerable to life-threatening complications. Fifty per cent of patients will require surgery but until now, doctors have had a difficult time determining who needs surgery and when.

“Right now, the criteria we use to determine who needs to have their aorta removed to prevent a catastrophe like a rupture is pretty crude. We just look at the size of the aorta, which doesn’t always accurately predict how serious a patient’s condition is.”

READ MORE: What you need to know about a ruptured aorta

It’s why new technology being studied by Fedak and Alex Farber at Chicago’s Northwestern University is so important. During a five-year clinical research study, the men will use 4D-Flow MRI to help determine more personalized treatment plans for patients with BAV.

“The 4D-Flow component allows us–for the first time–to look at blood flow patterns.”

Fedak says by measuring those patterns, surgeons can see exactly how much damage a patient’s heart valve has sustained, so doctors can tell who needs surgery now and who does not.

READ MORE: Folic acid linked to drop in heart defects 

Christopher Ames underwent open-heart surgery to treat his heart condition last December. Using traditional MRI, doctors found his heart had become enlarged.

Ames says the new 4D technology could have meant a different treatment plan.

“Hopefully, going forward in the future, they can determine exactly what surgery you need,” he said. “Maybe I needed [my surgery] sooner.”

Researchers hope the new technology will cut down on the number of unnecessary open-heart surgeries and save tens of thousands of lives.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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