'Sleeve' May Help Heart Patients

The Early Show's weeklong "Heartscore" series explores the latest developments in the treatment and prevention of heart disease.

Medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay begins the series with news of an experimental treatment for heart failure.

It's a progressive deterioration of the heart's ability to pump, which causes the heart to enlarge and eventually stop working, Senay explains. Now, doctors are experimenting with a way to reduce the size of the heart, to restore its function.

"I never had any pain," recalls heart failure patient Pat Brough. "You don't have pain with heart failure. You're just sort of winding down, like a clock winding down."

Four years ago, her illness was making everyday activity a huge struggle for Brough: "The fatigue was immeasurable. I was just exhausted. I couldn't dry my hair without getting out of breath. I couldn't walk more than twenty feet."

Like many people with heart failure, Brough's medication couldn't halt the progression of her disease. She was running out of treatment options, Senay says.

Dr. Michael Acker, a University of Pennsylvania heart surgeon, says, "Heart transplantation is the gold standard, but it's only available to a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who could benefit from it. So, we're constantly seeking new ways to help people who are suffering from this horrible disease."

Acker offered pat an experimental surgical implant: a polyester mesh sleeve that wraps around the heart. "It's a very simple concept," he notes.

A failing heart enlarges as it loses it's ability to pump. The heart sleeve stops it from getting bigger, reduces the size of the heart, and improves function.

"The hearts become smaller," Acker says, "and as the hearts become smaller, hearts start working better, they start contracting better, and most importantly, the patients start feeling better."

Brough's condition improved quickly once the sleeve was implanted. Now, three-and-a-half years later, she is still going strong. "I have a lot more energy," she says. "It's made the difference between night and day. …I go parasailing, horseback riding, taught my grand daughters how to jump rope. …It has added years to my life."

The new sleeve isn't a cure for heart failure, Senay stresses. But, she adds, the results of the latest clinical trial, presented in November, showed it not only reduces the size of the heart, but patients like Brough had fewer symptoms of heart failure and were less likely to need a major heart operation.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering its approval.

What's more, Senay says, so far, no major complications have developed, and some patients have had the sleeve for more than four years.