Weiner is confident that the approach will work because there’s enough published research from the academic community to support it. In particular, Biophan’s patents build on work carried out by Spano and William Ditto, previously at Georgia Institute of Technology, now in the University of Florida’s Department of Biomedical Engineering in Gainesville.
In the 1990s, Spano and Ditto carried out work on animals and some limited tests on humans to demonstrate that some types of fibrillation can be corrected using low-power signals. This work is grounded in chaos control theory, says Spano. “It’s not much more complicated than a kid taking a baseball bat and balancing it vertically in the palm of their hand,” he says. But instead of nudging a bat, one is applying electrical signals to nudge the heart back into a healthy rhythm. “Once you get the heart back to a regular beat, it tends to revert and maintain a normal rhythm,” he says.
“There’s every reason to believe it would work,” says Ditto. And every reason to try: “A quarter of all deaths are ultimately due to ventricular fibrillation.”
Others are equally optimistic. Since evidence exists that early signs of epileptic attacks can be detected, it’s conceivable that similar early warning signs of fibrillation can be detected, says Andrew Grace, a consulting cardiologist at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
The catch is that it can be difficult to test predictive algorithms because, despite its role in many deaths, VF is quite a rare event, he says. “You can induce it, but then you are not allowing the natural conditions to occur.” Even so, the potential benefits to patients are great enough that the prospect of pre-empting VR should be encouraged, even though it’s difficult to test, says Grace. This is especially compelling since about one-third of shocks delivered by defibrillators turn out to come from false alarms.
If they can get the energy levels down to those of a pacemaker, it will dramatically change the way lives are saved, says Ditto. “It takes more energy to start a heart than it takes to start a car on a cold day,” he says. This reality makes defibrillators large, short-lived, and expensive.