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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For some heart patients, a new study shows stents are no better at preventing heart attacks or deaths than a regimen of drugs and healthy lifestyles. This study is the talk of cardiologists at their annual meeting in New Orleans today. Stent treatment involves the artery-clearing procedure called angioplasty followed by insertion of tiny tubes, the stents, to keep the arteries open.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: There is no question that angioplasty actually saves lives when it's done while somebody is having a heart attack or having chest pain at rest. But some leading cardiologists are calling the study released today a blockbuster because it's the first to test rigorously the use of angioplasty and stents for people with what doctors call stable coronary disease. That means they may have chest pain but only on exertion.

Researchers randomly assigned 2,300 patients with stable heart disease to two groups. Both got drugs to control their cholesterol and blood pressure and minimize blood clots, and everybody was counseled to lose weight, exercise and stop smoking. But one group also got angioplasty and stents to open up coronary blockages. Dr. William Boden of Buffalo General Hospital presented the results today at the American College of Cardiology meeting in New Orleans.

Dr. WILLIAM BODEN (Chief of Cardiology, Buffalo General Hospital): When all was said and done, the results of the trial did not support additional benefit of angioplasty and coronary stents when added to medical therapy and lifestyle intervention.

KNOX: That may come as a surprise to many heart patients. About 80,000 get angioplasty and stents every month, almost a million a year. It's not clear how many have stable coronary disease like patients in the new study. Some say 40 percent, others say 85 percent, but it's a lot of people. Many undergo the procedure to relieve their chest pain. As expected, the new study showed that those who got angioplasty did have less chest pain, especially in the first year after the procedure.

But Boden says this angioplasty advantage faded over the nearly five years of the study because drug treatment did better at controlling symptoms.

Dr. BODEN: We were rather surprised that it was as good as it was for alleviating chest discomfort.

KNOX: Dr. Steven Nissen says the new study seems counterintuitive but in fact it supports new thinking about heart disease. The obvious buildups of cholesterol-laden plaques in coronary arteries aren't the truly dangerous ones.

Dr. STEVEN NISSEN (President, American College of Cardiology): Most heart attacks do not occur because of a blood clot at the site with the worst narrowing in the coronary. Most heart attacks occur at a site with relatively minor blockage in the coronary, and so the very sites that you put a stent are not the ones that are likely to cause the next heart attack or sudden death.

KNOX: Nissen, who is president of the American College of Cardiology, says that's why clearing the obvious blockages doesn't do what doctors hoped it would.

Dr. NISSEN: Putting a stent in the most narrowed area in the artery doesn't really address the underlying problem. This cholesterol accumulation in the wall of the artery is everywhere.

KNOX: Many cardiologists who make their living doing angioplasties and implanting stents dismiss the new study. They say they no longer claim that the procedure saves lives or prevents heart attacks in patients with stable coronary disease. They also say the study doesn't prove that drug therapy is nearly as good at relieving chest pain.

Dr. Gregory Dehmer is a Texas cardiologist who leads a national group of so- called interventional cardiologists who specialize in angioplasty and stenting. He says patients told they have a blocked coronary artery believe they need the procedure.

Dr. GREGORY DEHMER (President, Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions): One of the most common questions that a patient will ask you is, doc, what's my chance that I'm going to have a heart attack? And for years and years and years, patients would think that if I have a 95 percent blockage and my next-door neighbor has a 50 percent blockage, that my risk of having a heart attack must be higher because by blockage is worse. And we now know that that's not true.

KNOX: Good doctors should tell patients that, Dehmer says. But it's not clear whether the new study will reduce the number of angioplasty and stent procedures. It doesn't address another recent question about stents - an indication that stents impregnated with drugs are linked to heart attacks. Those stents weren't used in this study.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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