A revolutionary new operation which could effectively cure high blood pressure has been developed by scientists, offering hope to hundreds of thousands of sufferers.
By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor
Published: 8:00AM GMT 26 Dec 2009
An estimated 15 million people in Britain suffer from high blood pressurePhoto: PA
In what is being hailed as the most exciting development in the field for 50 years, doctors can treat the condition with a simple procedure in under an hour.
It could allow some sufferers to come off medication completely and offer hope for those for whom existing treatments have no effect.
The technique, which is relatively straightforward and cheap for the NHS, could reduce the risk of a major heart attack or stroke in such patients by half.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that the new procedure, which involves placing tiny burns on a nerve responsible for high blood pressure in some people, has been carried out in Britain for the first time.
It is part of an international clinical trial which could lead to the new treatment being offered on the NHS.
An estimated 15 million people in Britain suffer from high blood pressure, also known as hypertension - around half of them undiagnosed.
About one in 10 sufferers cannot control the condition with medication or cannot tolerate the drugs, leaving them at greater risk.
Hundreds of thousands face a lifetime on medication to reduce the risk of suffering heart disease, strokes or kidney failure.
Dr Mel Lobo, a specialist in clinical hypertension at Barts and the London NHS Trust, said: "This is the most exciting development in hypertension since the advent of anti-hypertensive medication 50 years ago.
“It is hard to forecast the limitations and it could eventually be compared to medication.”
The new procedure, called renal sympathetic-nerve ablation, involves inserting a wire into a blood vessel close to the kidneys to burn through nerves which carry signals that stimulate high blood pressure.
It disrupts signals from the brain telling the kidneys to keep blood pressure raised. Initial tests suggest it can be effective within three months.
Anthony Henry, 68, a retired chef from Stratford in East London, became the first person in Britain to have the operation.
Watched by The Daily Telegraph, the team at the London Chest Hospital carried out the painstaking procedure in just over one hour.
Mr Henry, who is diabetic and has already suffered a stroke and a deep vein thrombosis, was awake throughout the procedure and spoke to Prof Martin Rothman, the cardiologist who performed it.
He was kept in hospital overnight but it is thought once greater experience is gained with the technique, patients will be able to go home the same day.
Mr Henry's blood pressure has already come down, just two weeks after the operation and it is thought most patients will see an improvement within three months.
Prof Rothman said: "Patients will be able to walk into the hospital and walk out again the same day.
"This relatively trivial procedure has the potential to make a serious improvement to the quality of life for the patient.
“It is very efficient and can lower the blood pressure enough to reduce stroke mortality by 50 per cent."
It was estimated the procedure could cost the NHS around £4,000 per patient, yet it could prevent significant numbers of strokes and heart attacks saving money on emergency treatment and rehabilitation.
Dr Paul Sobotka, chief medical officer of Ardian, an American company which has developed the equipment, said: "For the first time we can think of a cure for hypertension."
Mr Henry is one of 110 patients taking part in a trial to evaulate the new technique with half receiving the operation plus their normal medication and the other half only taking their drugs.
Dr David Collier, senior clinical trials fellow at the Biomedical Research Unit at Queen Mary University London, said the operation offers real hope of an alternative to a life on pills for patients whose blood pressure is difficult to control but he warned that it was not the 'lazy person's answer' to diet and exercise.
Dr Collier said: "This procedure can bring patients within the normal blood pressure range and may enable some to come off their medication. It is the equivalent of them taking two types of drugs. They could be considered cured, at least in the medium-term and we hope long-term."