Tech Tools Against Heart Disease

As the "HeartScore" series continues this week, The Early Show takes a look at exciting new breakthroughs in medical technology that are helping hundreds of thousands of people battle heart disease and keep arteries flowing smoothly.

The Early Show Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to heart disease is how to reopen clogged arteries and keep them that way. To reopen those arteries, many people annually undergo a procedure called angioplasty.

Angioplasty involves threading a balloon catheter into the clogged heart artery, and inflating the balloon to unblock it. Then a stent -- or a wire mesh tube -- is placed to hold the artery open. The problem, says Senay, has been that scar tissue often forms around that stent, creating another blockage.

The body's healing process causes the artery to re-clog quickly. New cells grow inside the artery to repair the damage done by the angioplasty, and sometimes that growth continues unchecked -- leading to the cells to clog the stent. From 20 to 50 percent of the stents are blocked again, depending on the patient.

Doctors are overcoming the problem with new stents coated with drugs that keep the body's healing process in check and avoid the re-clogging. They are proving to work well in a wide variety of "real-world" patients.

Since the new stents were first approved last April, they are now being used in about 60 percent of angioplasty procedures -- almost 350,000 patients have used the drug-coated stents.

Senay says time will tell which patients will benefit the most, but the new stents are benefiting heart patients who don't have to undergo a repeat angioplasty when arteries re-block, and the hope is that those patients can avoid or at least delay much more invasive bypass surgery.

In the future, the cost savings to the health care system are potentially huge if there are fewer angioplasties and surgeries. Senay says although the new stents are expensive, there is a competition from another stent awaiting approval that works in the same way but uses a different drug, which should help bring the costs down.

Scientists are always looking for new ways to get more oxygen to a heart that is deprived by blocked arteries. Gene therapy has shown promise in the past at actually stimulating the body to grow new blood vessels in the heart.

The newest cutting-edge medical experiments involve the use of stem cells, or young cells that can develop into a variety of different cells to help fight disease. Doctors are harvesting stem cells from the bone marrow of heart patients and feeding them into the heart to see if they can help grow new blood vessels.

Medical experts won't know the results immediately, but, Senay says, stem cells are an exciting avenue of research because they seem to have the ability to know the best role to take when it comes to fighting disease.