Health Team

Duke Pioneers New Cure for Heart Defect in Children

Posted February 11, 2008 8:11 p.m. EST
Updated February 14, 2008 5:08 p.m. EST

— A certain heart defect in children may go unnoticed until it causes real problems, but Duke University Medical Center is leading the way to make a cure simpler and safer.

An atrial septal defect literally leaves a hole in a person's heart. Some children are born with a hole that allows blood to flow between the two upper chambers of the heart.

That blood flow can cause extra pressure of the lungs "or it may cause problems with heart stretch, making the heart fire irregularly or have abnormal heart rhythms," said Dr. John Rhodes, a pediatric cardiologist at Duke.

Rachel Larsen took her daughter, Rachel, to Duke after she noticed the 8-year-old could not run like she used to during recess at Emerson Waldorf School in Chapel Hill.

"I thought maybe she had asthma, because she was complaining about chest pain," Larsen said.

Instead, doctors noticed an odd sound in her heart and diagnosed her with an atrial septal defect.

The normal treatment is to place a titanium, nickel-frame device in a person's heart to block the hole. A smaller version is used in children between ages 3 and 8.

"Sitting inside a child's heart, it's a fairly large device," Rhodes said.

Rhodes has participated in clinical trials for a smaller, softer device called a Helex that he believes is a better option than the older device.

Through a catheter into the heart's atrium, the Helex unfurls in one chamber of the heart, and then the second half of the device covers other side of the defect. Heart tissue eventually grows around the Gore-Tex patch.

"It's less likely to cause an injury long term to the heart," Rhodes.

Larsen said she was encouraged to approve using the device in her daughter's heart, in part because it does not contain as much metal. Finding and treating the problem early, she believes, avoided more serious health problems for Rachel later in life.

Rachel underwent the procedure to implant a Helex device on a Thursday, and returned to school on the next Monday.

"I felt better. I can run faster," Rachel said.