Treating heart disease at the U

  • Article by: DANIEL J. GARRY
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 9:29 PM

Earl Bakken and his invention, a pacemaker, in 1962.

Photo: file, Star Tribune

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Today marks a milestone in the continuing quest by cardiovascular researchers and physicians at the University of Minnesota to conquer heart disease.

Fifty-three years ago, the first successful battery-operated pacemaker was developed by Earl Bakken and was surgically implanted by the pioneering University of Minnesota heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei.

Lillehei had lost patients because their pacemakers required electricity. Upon his request, Bakken built a transistorized pacemaker.

Lillehei tested it first in a dog and, the next day, implanted it in a patient. From this seminal work, two great things happened: For patients with heart disease, pacemakers (now wafer-sized) have become a common therapy, with more than 600,000 implanted annually.

And for Minnesota, Medtronic (a $15 billion company) was launched. Manny Villafana was the first international sales administrator of Medtronic and went on to found St. Jude Medical (a $5 billion company) and five other successful medical device companies in the state.

It was at the University of Minnesota where the first St. Jude Medical heart valve was implanted in a patient in 1977.

In addition to the development of the pacemaker, other firsts in the history of cardiovascular innovations and patient care at the U have included the founding of the Variety Club Heart Hospital (the first hospital exclusively for heart patients in the United States) in 1951; the world's first successful open heart surgery, and, 56 years ago, the development of the world's first successful heart-lung machine, the fundamentals of which are used in more than a million surgeries annually.

It was also nearly 60 years ago that University of Minnesota scientists -- Dr. Ancel Keys along with Drs. Francisco Grande and Joseph Anderson -- defined the relationship between dietary fat and serum cholesterol, which linked cholesterol to heart disease.

In 2003, lipid-lowering agents known as statins had become the best-selling pharmaceutical in history. They have been shown to decrease cardiac events by 60 percent and strokes by 17 percent.

Over the past six decades, Minnesota has achieved the enviable status of having the lowest heart disease mortality rate in the United States. This fact attests to the value of cardiovascular research, begun at the University of Minnesota by a few physicians who persisted amid a storm of controversy and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Today, that same Driven to Discover vision is thriving and is resulting in equally impressive innovations for better treatment and prevention of heart disease.

More than 700 heart transplants have been performed at the University of Minnesota, and the survival rate of these patients is among the best in the world.

Moreover, U researchers and surgeons were among the first in the state to successfully implant left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), which aid patients with heart failure. Likewise, the first robotic, minimally invasive heart surgery in Minnesota was performed at the U.

Our scientists have found ways to turn skin cells into heart cells with the hope of translating this scientific discovery into treatment for our patients. Most recently, faculty at the Lillehei Heart Institute at the U were selected by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes to lead a $170 million research project involving 18 heart research centers across the United States to investigate emerging technologies, including the use of stem cells to strengthen hearts severely weakened by heart failure and heart attack.

This is one of the new frontiers in heart disease, and we are leading this exciting exploration.

This spring, construction will begin on a new cardiovascular building that will be home to the Lillehei Heart Institute. Like the first heart hospital some 60 years ago, this state-of-the-art facility will allow for the generation of novel discoveries, inventions and therapies that will fuel our state with technologies and serve the common goal of curing heart disease.

Truly, cardiovascular research is one of Minnesota's inspiring success stories. It has made the U a global leader in heart disease treatment and prevention and our state a hub for cardiac-device manufacturing.

Millions of lives have been saved and improved because of innovations that have emerged from the University of Minnesota. In these times of economic challenge, we continue to discover, to innovate, to treat, and to lead the world in cardiovascular advances, and that is something all Minnesotans can feel good about.

Dr. Daniel J. Garry is director of the Lillehei Heart Institute and chief of the Cardiovascular Division at the University of Minnesota.

Note: Photo is of Earl Bakken with his invention, a pacemaker, in 1962.

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