After a heart surgery late last year kept philanthropist Tom Evslin going, he made another trip to Fletcher Allen Health Care today to return the favor. The former head of Microsoft’s server products division gave the green for a million dollar research project in the works at the hospital.
The research Evslin and his wife, Mary, are funding is designed to find a way to make an existing treatment for atrial fibrillation – or A-fib – more effective.
A-fib occurs when the electrical signal flowing through the heart – normally a steady band of energy flowing through the tissue with every heartbeat – becomes random, and less of a band than a swirling signal.
Up to now, only two treatments are available. One, which uses medicine, is effective in about 45 percent of cases, according to Dr. Peter Spector. The other, ablation, uses small catheters and wires to physically alter the heart.
“Essentially we’re able to use these wires to record electrical activity inside the heart and we can heat the tissue with those catheters, creating scar. Scar doesn’t conduct electricity, and in so doing we alter how electricity flows through the heart,” Spector said.
That treatment is effective 50 to 60 percent of the time it’s used, Spector said, but the majority of A-fib patients aren’t eligible candidates for the treatment.
“In fact, the success rate is much lower than [60 percent],” he said, “and we need to do a better job.”
Part of the reason it’s not as effective as it could be, Spector said, is because while individual patients have different electrical flow patterns through their heart, the procedure is mostly uniform.
“What we have now, unfortunately, is no ability to use our catheters to measure electrical activity in individual patients and decide based upon those recordings and decide ‘This is where I need to ablate this patient,’” Spector said. “Instead we have what’s referred to somewhat inappropriately as the one size fits all approach, so we do the same ablation procedure in just about every patient with atrial fibrillation regardless of what we learn by putting catheters in their heart.”
Spector’s idea is to use the recordings of electricity through the heart to map its flow, then using that information, create scarring in areas unique to each patient to more effectively steer the flow of electricity. Spector thinks the process would make ablation more effective for A-fib patients.
Evslin thinks so too, and he’s betting a million dollars on it.
With the donation, the Evslins are the first two members of the “Cardiovascular Angel Club,” which steals the term from the high-tech industry’s “angel investors.”
“Mary and I are familiar with Angel funding from our days in the high-tech community,” Evslin said. “So Angel investors come in – I guess you can’t say angels come in where angels fear to tread but – angels are used to taking high risk. Angels understand that most of the things they invest in won’t work out but they do it because the success is so much greater than the sum of all the failures because if you don’t do the high-risk things then you can’t make the wonderful breakthroughs that progress depends on.”
While much research is funded by pharmaceutical companies, federal money and university endowments, this project was unique in that it wasn’t a prime candidate for any of those funding structures. The research isn’t going to result in a new drug and it isn’t likely enough to work that it would be a sound investment for governments or universities.
“It’s our hope, of course, that Dr. Spector will succeed. It’s not a given. … We’re looking for the long shots, for the reach for the moon. I believe he’ll succeed, but we don’t know that.”