Gentle shocks to combat ventricular fibrillation: a new generation of defibrillators

GO-Bio 6 – Prof. Dr. Stefan Luther – Research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, Göttingen

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Recipient: Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPG)
Funding: GO-Bio Phase I (01.06.2013 - 30.06.2018, 2.933.702 Euro)


Every year in Germany, more than 100,000 people die from sudden cardiac death. This is triggered by an irregular heartbeat, the causes of which can include ventricular fibrillation. Here, the electrical stimulus that drives the pumping activity of the heart becomes increasingly chaotic and spreads out into the heart muscle in spiral-shaped waves. Defibrillators are a vital tool for dealing with ventricular fibrillation. These devices send out a strong electrical shock that has the effect of briefly extinguishing any electrical signals in the heart as a whole. The cardiac rhythm can then return to its regular tempo. While these electrical shocks are effective, they are extremely painful for the patients, and can also cause damage to the surrounding tissue. Such side effects are also why many patients decline the option of an implanted cardioverter defibrillator.

Stefan Luther and his team are developing a new generation of defibrillators that function according to the concept of low-energy defibrillation. The implantable devices do not regulate the entire heart with a high-energy shock, but instead counter any rhythm disturbances by stimulating numerous areas of the heart muscle simultaneously through the application of weak electric fields.

The technology is called LEAP (low-energy antifibrillation pacing). The procedure has already been successfully tested in animal models, where it was possible to reduce the required energy by up to 90 per cent compared to conventional devices. The researchers assume that this will be considerably below the pain threshold. In the GO-Bio project, Luther and his team plan to develop the device up to successful functional testing in the large animal model. This will be accompanied by the development of prototype LEAP defibrillator. The functional tests will encompass in silico, in vitro and in vivo analyses, and will be carried out in cooperation with physicians at Göttingen University Hospital. The second project phase envisages clinical trials and the market approval of the medical device.