Published on June 03, 2014

Meet Dr. Carlos Leon, Cardiology Specialist with Jacksonville’s TAVR Heart Team

Dr. Carlos LeonDr. Carlos Leon always knew he wanted to be a doctor. And once he began his medical training, he knew his life’s work would be in cardiology.

“I decided early on that cardiology would be my medical vocation,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding field. Patients can be very sick. But with treatment, you can really see the improvement quickly, more so than in other fields.”

Born in New York but raised in Bogota, Colombia, Dr. Leon began his medical training at Juan N. Corpas School of Medicine in his home country in 1974, traveling to America for a straight medical internship and medicine residency at New Orleans’ Tulane University in 1980 and, later, a cardiology fellowship at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Along the way, Dr. Leon was privileged to work with a few of medicine’s true luminaries. Among them: Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a Colombian immunologist who made the world’s first attempt to create a synthetic vaccine for malaria, and who famously developed a vaccine for rheumatic fever; and Dr. Michael DeBakey, widely considered the father of cardiac surgery.

But it was during a fellowship with an interventional cardiology program at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in 1988 that Dr. Leon would begin work that, over the course of the next few decades, would lead him to his current specialty.

“I’ve always had an interest in valves,” Dr. Leon said. “When I did my fellowship at the University of Alabama, we were involved with the initial treatment of the aortic valve using aortic balloon valvuloplasty and mitral valvuloplasty. These were the early days in which patients with severe aortic stenosis, if they were deemed inoperable, would undergo balloon valvuloplasty.”

Typically caused by age-related calcification, aortic stenosis restricts the normal flow of oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the brain and rest of the body.  The condition takes the lives of more than 25,000 people each year. Unfortunately, while initial results with the then-new balloon valvuloplasty technology were encouraging, valves would re-narrow quickly. While mitral valvuloplasty offered longer-lasting results, they still were not optimal. But, a revolutionary new treatment technology was on the horizon. It was at that time that Dr.  Alain Cribier was conducting pioneering research and trials on percutaneous valve implantation.

“There was skepticism worldwide, but he persevered,” Dr. Leon said. “Soon, it was obvious that TAVR was here to stay.”

Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement, or TAVR, involves the insertion of a bioprosthetic valve stent into the orifice of the native aortic valve percutaneously (through the skin) using a catheter. The stent latches onto the wall of the aortic valve, widening the narrowed valve opening and allowing blood to again flow normally.

“When you evaluate new treatments, you do many, many studies and you typically have to treat 50 to 80 patients to save just one life,” Dr. Leon said. “With TAVR, you only need to treat five patients to save a life. There is a dramatic reduction in mortality and a dramatic improvement in the quality of life.”

In its current incarnation, TAVR is approved for inoperable patients and for high risk patients for whom open heart surgery  would be problematic. And, the St. Vincent’s TAVR Heart Team is among the first in the nation to provide it.

“This is the certain milestones in cardiology,” Dr. Leon said. “It’s had a major impact on how we treat patients worldwide. In just a day, patients can go home, they can walk, they can wake up, be happy and have a better quality of life.”