A new way to fix a broken heart: Virtual reality revolutionizes cardiac care

WASHINGTON — Virtual reality may soon revolutionize cardiac care and change the way doctors fix a broken heart.

A team of bioengineers at Johns Hopkins University has devised a way to create a custom computer-driven model of a patient’s heart: It’s a virtual heart, and it uses images from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“The potential is enormous,” says Natalia Trayanova, a professor of biomedical engineering who heads the Computational Cardiology Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Trayanova says the virtual heart could become an important diagnostic tool for cardiologists. It enables them to pinpoint a problem and determine how to fix it by zooming in from the whole heart, down to the molecular level. Trayanova calls it a “Google heart,” referencing the zoom in-and-out feature of Google Maps.

Trayanova’s lab is bringing together multiple disciplines — from basic math, to computer programming, to molecular science — all in a quest to improve diagnoses, save critical time and make the whole process far less invasive for patients.

For now, her team is focusing on those who experience arrhythmia — a fast or irregular heartbeat — coming from the lower chambers of the heart. This is what is known as an “electric” heart condition.

With the virtual heart, doctors are able to track the trouble spot, as well as the flow of electric activity throughout the heart muscle.

Instead of an exploratory point-by-point probe of the heart with a catheter that could go on for hours, doctors can look at the virtual heart and then go directly to the problem area to deliver treatment, which is often an ablation to destroy a small piece of problematic tissue.

Trayanova says the virtual heart is a much more accurate way to “map” a heart, and ablations performed this way produce much smaller lesions because the “search and destroy mission” is far more targeted.

She says her team is clearing the last hurdles to clinical trials. “We are extremely excited about that fundamental leap from basic science to the bedside and the patient.”

Next up: Bringing virtual heart technology to arrhythmias emanating from the upper chambers of the heart. Trayanova predicts that over time, the technology will continue to evolve, creating a paradigm shift in cardiac care.


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