Medical Breakthroughs

Learn about six of the latest trends in health care and the leading Valley doctors who perform them



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Magnetic maneuvers for heart patients

Doctors treating patients with abnormal heartbeats, or cardiac arrhythmias, can now use the power of magnets to provide a nonsurgical procedure that is safer and more precise than ever.

The new technique is a variation on a traditional method used by cardiologists, in which a tiny catheter — a tube containing electrodes at the tip — is inserted through a patient’s veins and arteries and “snaked” up to the heart. Then a diagnostic step known as mapping is often used: It measures the heart’s electrical activity and helps determine where a problem might lie.

“Traditionally, the catheter is controlled manually, by the physician,” says Sankar Varanasi, M.D., a cardiologist with a specialty in electrophysiology (the heart’s electrical activity). But now, with Stereotaxis technology, a technique known as remote magnetic navigation can be used to guide a catheter into place with pinpoint precision with the help of powerful magnets.

“Instead of the physician standing there and manually performing this step of the procedure, with Stereotaxis, they are able to manipulate it remotely. This allows us to be very precise. We can do step-by-step, accurate mapping to define the heart’s electrical signals,” says Varanasi, who is affiliated with the Heart Center in Poughkeepsie.

This type of procedure doesn’t leave anything behind in the patient, such as a pacemaker. And in certain cases, it might be the only treatment they’d need

Science 101-type magnetic attraction lies at the core of the high-tech procedure, he explains. “Just like with a conventional magnet, you can move something toward it that responds to the magnetic field.”

With magnetic navigation (an FDA-approved procedure that is also performed by John Respass, M.D. of the Heart Center), the catheter inserted into the heart contains a magnetic sensor. Two large magnets are placed on both sides of the patient, who is lying face-down in a unit similar to an MRI machine. “One benefit is that this is an open-field unit, so patients don’t have that claustrophobic feeling of being in a closed MRI,” Varanasi says.

The physician then monitors the point-by-point cardiac mapping from an adjoining “control room.”

“Stereotaxis is actually both a diagnostic and treatment system used in the same setting,” Varanasi points out. After mapping, physicians can deliver different types of energy through the catheter to help regulate the errant heartbeat. The most common type of energy, radiofrequency ablation, emits high-frequency electrical energy to help control arrhythmias. “The advantage here is that the magnets allow us to have really precise control of where we want to deliver the energy,” he says. The entire procedure can take a few hours, according to the patient’s individual case, with recuperation usually just an overnight hospital stay.

“In the past 20 years,” Varanasi says, “physicians have tended to move away from sending patients into open-heart surgery. This type of procedure doesn’t leave anything behind in the patient, such as a pacemaker. And in certain cases, it might be the only treatment they’d need.

“This is a state-of-the-art treatment for heart arrhythmias,” says Varanasi. “It’s one of the tools in my armament as a cardiac physician, and it’s one of the most powerful.”

Sankar Varanasi, M.D.
Hudson Valley Heart Center, 845-473-1188

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