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Heart disease is a life or death issue for millions of people. In the United States, it is the leading cause of death every year and yet many of the treatments for heart disease are still extraordinarily crude. For example, the primary treatment for ventricular fibrillation, a lethal heart rhythm disorder, is to give a huge electric shock to the heart. ‘It’s as if you want to open the door and you don’t have a key, so you blow up the door instead’, says Natalia Trayanova, a physicist and biomedical engineer who develops computer models of the heart. The price for our lack of understanding of the mechanisms of heart disease is considerable. Even though defibrillators save lives, they can cause psychological trauma for people who undergo the shocks repeatedly (e.g., patients with implanted devices). Likewise, drugs that fail because we don’t understand their mechanism of action cost money to pharmaceutical companies and leave people with rhythm disorders at risk for later heart attacks. Trayanova envisions using computer models as a ‘Google Heart’ that will allow doctors to understand what is happening in their patients in the same way that Google Earth gives geologists a bird’s-eye view of our planet. ‘I would like to bring computer simulation of the heart function to the bedside’, Trayanova says.
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