Treating heart abnormalities at the MUHC with radiation therapy

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Radiation oncologists and cardiologists rarely collaborate, but the two medical specialties have come together at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), to mend broken hearts.

The MUHC says patients with severe arrhythmias, including ventricular tachycardia, will benefit from a radiotherapy treatment that targets the abnormal parts of the heart that cause arrhythmias.

The treatment takes about 30 minutes.

“We normally locate tumours and treat them by directing the beams onto them,” says radiation oncologist Dr. Tarek Hijal.

This treatment uses the same technology and techniques but zeroes in on the heart’s trouble spots instead.

One of the first Canadian patients to benefit was treated at the MUHC last October. The technique has only been used on a few dozen patients worldwide.

Ventricular arrhythmias are abnormal heartbeats that usually occur when scar tissue in a damaged heart acts as the activation centre of an electrical short circuit.

"In cases of severe arrhythmia, the heart pumps so quickly that it runs in a vacuum, there is no circulation, and that results in a cardiac arrest. The goal of the treatment is to calm the game by changing the electrical properties of the tissue, so that short circuits can no longer form,” explains cardiologist Dr. Martin Bernier.

Bernier says this gives patients another treatment option. The alternatives are quite invasive and include, a potent medication, a catheter inserted in a vein in the heart to eliminate arrhythmia circuits or a heart transplant.

Working with his cardiology colleagues has been “unique and rewarding,” Dr. Hijal said. The MUHC says the teams will launch a research project in 2020 to further their expertise.

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