Artery Treatment Gets High Marks

There's encouraging word on a relatively new treatment for unclogging heart arteries. A study shows that the treatment is working well.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay

that one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to heart disease is how to reopen clogged arteries and keep them open.

Hundreds of thousands of people every year undergo a procedure called angioplasty to reopen those arteries.

Angioplasty involves threading a balloon catheter into the clogged artery, inflating the balloon to unblock it, then inserting a stent, a wire mesh tube that holds the artery open.

Senay says the problem has been that scar tissue often forms around the stent, creating another blockage. So, in a sense, the body's own healing process works against it. New cells grow inside the artery to repair the damage done by the angioplasty, and sometimes that growth continues unchecked and the cells themselves actually clog the stent. Anywhere from 29 percent to 50 percent of stents block up again.

But, Senay says, doctors may be succeeding in overcoming the problem.

Instead of using a plain metal stent, doctors are more frequently using stents coated with drugs that keep the body's healing process in check and prevent the reclogging.

A study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that these medicated stents are working very well. The number of patients who needed another procedure because their arteries clogged up again was cut in half when the stents were medicated.

Doctors are implanting about 160,000 medicated stents every month, making them the most widely used method for clearing blocked arteries. That means more heart patients won't have to undergo a repeat angioplasty when arteries reblock, and the hope is that those patients can avoid or at least delay much more invasive bypass surgery.

That has wider implications, Senay says, because the stents are expensive. Now that there is more data out there, more drug companies should be inclined to make stents, currently a $5 billion business. There are two companies with medicated stents on the market, and a couple more have been approved for use in Europe. They're expected to enter the U.S. market by 2007 and 2008. That means more competition and, in turn, potentially lower costs.

The increased use of these stents should also translate into fewer angioplasties and surgeries, cutting costs to the health care system as a whole.