The nuclear pacemaker: Is renewed interest warranted?

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      From 1973 through 1987, 155 radioisotope-powered “nuclear” pacemakers were implanted in 132 patients at the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. The longevity of the first 15 devices, all of which were fixed-rate (VOO) pacemakers, was significantly better than that of 15 lithium-chemistry demand (VVI) pacemakers used as control devices (p = 0.0002). Of the entire cohort of 155 nuclear pacemakers, 136 were VVI devices and 19 were VOO units. The patients with VOO pacemakers needed reoperations more often than did those with VVI pacemakers, chiefly for mode change (p < 0.001). Power-source failure was observed in only 1 case, but 47 nuclear pacemakers were removed for other reasons, including component malfunction (15 units), mode change (12 units), high pacing thresholds (8 units) and lead or connector problems (5 units). The actuarial survival at 15 years was 99% for power sources and 82% for the entire pacing systems (pulse generators plus leads). The frequency of malignancy was similar to that of the population at large and primary tumor sites were randomly distributed. Deaths most commonly were due to cardiac causes (68%). Thus, nuclear pacemakers are safe and reliable and their greater initial cost appears to be offset by their longevity and the resulting decrease in the frequency of reoperations. It is reasonable to suggest that further use be made of long-lasting nuclear power sources for modern pacemakers and other implantable rhythm-management devices.
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