A Reinvigorated Heart Transplant Program

The Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program team counterbalances inconsistent recoveries and long-term survival rates with innovative surgical approaches, improved devices and new hospital policies.

Physician Update
March 9, 2018

Cardiothoracic surgeon Ahmet Kilic is sharply aware that he stands at the midpoint of a see-saw, one tilting downward.

New to Johns Hopkins, Kilic was hired both for his art and skill in transplanting hearts and for his expertise in the specifics of matching recipients with donors. If an organ is unavailable in a timely manner, the decision can be made to pursue surgical therapy in the form of a ventricular assist device (VAD) or other type of mechanical circulatory support system.

The Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory

The Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program team counterbalances inconsistent recoveries and long-term survival rates with innovative surgical approaches, improved devices and new hospital policies.

Kilic (pronounced “KIL-itch”) directs Johns Hopkins’ Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program. The goal: Protect patients’ overall tissue perfusion and restore a quality of life to patients facing chronic or end-stage heart failure.  

Still, he says, even with some two decades of worldwide research on VAD surgical implants, statistics on long-term survival fall short of perfect.

Ahmet Kilic

Donor hearts remain scarce, and adverse events from VADs, though fewer, dog the various mechanical circulatory support devices. The pumps can malfunction from clotting, with a subsequent risk of bleeding or stroke.

Moreover, fundamental questions persist: Why, in like patients in similar stages of cardiogenic shock, for example, does one patient achieve better than a one-year survival, while the other doesn’t? Do the devices themselves remodel still-normal, adjacent heart tissue? Do they sensitize patients’ immune systems? Can early insertion of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) slow right-ventricle cardiomyopathy?

Kilic, however, is confident that, in the near future, surgical therapy can level the see-saw of outcomes for sicker patients and likely start its tilt in the other direction. LVAD design is steadily improving, for example. Also, Kilic says, there’s research on new materials—hybrids of biological and manmade agents to line the pumps—which seem patient-friendlier and discourage blood clots.

He ticks off other changes: “By using better criteria to select recipients, we have significantly changed patient responses to LVADs. And we’re more often introducing the pumps earlier, when people are less sick and better able to cope with the morbidity of surgery.”

That tactic goes hand-in-hand with an overall policy change in Johns Hopkins’ surgical heart failure therapy group. “We now see our advanced patients earlier as a team,” Kilic explains. “That means we do rounds together, bringing in the heart failure cardiologists, coordinators, nurses, intensivists and, of course, the surgeons to the bedside.” 

A last improvement comes as LVADs have become smaller, namely, using best practices to guide their insertion. While Kilic was program head at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, for example, his lab fine-tuned placement of the HeartMate II, a “workhorse,” second-generation pump. It became the first one FDA-approved both as a lasting or “destination therapy” and as a temporary bridge to buy time for patients with refractory disease still on heart transplant lists.

Positioning the pump lower and securing it more tightly—part of the national PREVENT clinical trial—significantly discouraged in-pump clots.

Last fall, HeartMate III won approval as smaller, still, and even better-tolerated. “We’ve introduced this new pump to Johns Hopkins, along with the competitor HeartWare HVAD,” he says. Though each has its own niche, both pumps work by a new principle, Kilic says, where internal parts that might wear unduly are magnetized to repel each other.  

Because the HeartWare HVAD is the smallest yet, Kilic could introduce mini-sternotomies at Johns Hopkins. “The incision—shorter than the full sternotomy—lessens patients’ recovery time, with less discomfort,” Kilic notes.

Over the past several years, Johns Hopkins surgeons performed 10 to 25 heart transplants a year—around the average volume for a major center. Fewer LVAD surgeries happened last year, but Kilic notes, “We deal with the sickest of the sick patients, and we will always perform whatever the patient’s body tells us to do.”

“As we solve the shortcomings of device therapy, guided by our outcomes research, we can expect procedures to become more routine,” he adds. “So far, I like best care as opposed to most care, and that is absolutely what we strive for at Hopkins—it’s our bottom line.”

 

To discuss a case or refer a patient, call 410-955-7935.

 

Surgical Sea Change

“A situation I didn’t expect drew me to Hopkins,” explains cardiac surgeon and Director of Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program Ahmet Kilic. “In fact, it was the biggest draw, something I couldn’t ignore, right in my focus, in my corner of the world.”

Kilic refers to what most would call a sea change in the Division of Cardiac Surgery at the East Baltimore campus. “I had the chance to join an institution with four other recent hires, including our division’s new director.” Now another surgeon is under consideration. “How often in academia,” Kilic asks, “do you get to help tailor your own team and add to an already impressive group?”

In universities, it’s not rare to see large turnover in a group that began roughly at the same time, some years earlier. That’s what occurred here, with revered and pioneering surgeons. “But it’s still unusual,” he says, “and the fresh start gives me a real hope of making an impact myself, on the way we treat heart failure.”

Jennifer Lawton, chief of the division, was the first to arrive, almost two years ago. She was instrumental in the hiring of Kilic and the others, with each successive recruit joining the selection process. For Kilic, she explains, “We needed someone dedicated to heart transplantation to build that specialty alongside our current talented surgeons.” Kilic’s additional perspective on mechanical circulatory supports added value.

Chun (Dan) Choi has a clinical focus on the optimal use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and researches better ex-vivo perfusion of donor hearts as a way to increase their suitability. Among Stefano Schena’s clinical interests are minimally invasive coronary and valve surgery via a transcatheter approach. Lawton, herself, specializes in adult coronary surgery in general, using innovative techniques such as minimally invasive valve and off-pump coronary artery surgery—without the heart-lung machine—which is shown to have better results postoperatively for women.

For Lawton, however, more than a sea change in faculty complement is underway. “It’s on our lanyard,” she says, pointing to the ribbon holding her ID badge. The ribbon reads: We care. We are conscientious, accountable, respectful and engaged. “These are the qualities that you will see in our faculty. They must excel in clinical surgery, research, education and patient care.”


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