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Ultrasound: a new approach to unclog blocked heart vessels

Using ultrasound to treat heart attacks by blasting away blood clots may be better than just using a balloon device to push the clot aside, researchers say.

The successful ultrasound treatment of one heart attack victim is described in a letter in the latest of The Lancet, a medical journal.

"This is, to our knowledge, the first such case treated with this method," said Dr. Robert Siegel, an author of the letter and a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He collaborated with doctors at the University of Hamburg in Germany, where the woman was treated.

The 48-year-old woman received ultrasound via a catheter inserted into a heart vessel immediately after she had a heart attack. An X-ray following the procedure showed that ultrasound dissolved the clot.

Because the technique is so new, doctors inserted a balloon device the following day to ensure that her vessels remained unclogged, a procedure called angioplasty. However, they believe the initial X-ray suggests that ultrasound alone might have been sufficient.

"Ultrasound dissolves the clot. The balloon squishes it against the wall," which might lead to higher rates of later re-clogging, called re-occlusion, said Siegel.

Dr. Barbara Alving, chief of the department of hematology at the Walter Reed Army Institute in Washington, D.C., said "it might be better (than angioplasty) if you could show there's less evidence of rupture (of the blood vessel) or re-occlusion."

Vessels re-clog in about 30 percent of the patients who have angioplasty.