The wait time for a heart transplant is long — from many months to over a year. Some patients will never get the transplant they need.
But researchers may have come up with an artificial heart solution: a titanium, pumpless, device with spinning magnets — and it looks nothing like a bonafide heart.
The problem: Heart failure affects over six million people every year in the U.S., and treatment options are slim. Medication can help, but some people need a heart transplant for a full recovery. Still, donor hearts are hard to come by. The number of people who need a heart far exceeds what’s available. And, donor hearts aren’t one-size-fits-all. The blood type and size need to be just right.
“If these patients can rise from their hospital beds, hug their family members, and continue their lives for many years to come, we’ll have taken a great step forward in the long quest for a total artificial heart.”Daniel Timms
Right now, the U.S. has only one type of approved artificial heart available. The organ, made by SynCardia, is far from perfect. Patients have to lug around a backpack-mounted air compressor to pump the fake heart. It is cumbersome and only meant to be a temporary fix — to buy time while the patient waits for a real heart from a donor, reports MIT Technology Review.
So researchers are trying to come up with a better, more permanent solution. But making a long-lasting heart is full of challenges. Hearts beat about 35 million times per year. You can imagine that a mechanical device beating with such frequency is bound to wear out, and most mechanical hearts break down too quickly.
A new direction: Most attempts at artificial hearts include a mechanical pump and chambers to stimulate blood flow. But, instead of trying to replicate a genuine heart with a mechanical heart, a company called BiVACOR says — why not reinvent the heart?
Instead of using pumps, they are making an artificial heart that uses spinning disks to push blood to the body. Made out of titanium and powered by external batteries, the spinning pump levitates between magnets, eliminating mechanical wear and tear.
Daniel Timms, chief executive officer of BiVACOR Inc., took inspiration from his father, a plumber who suffered a heart attack in 2001. When Timms realized there weren’t enough donor hearts to go around, he started designing an artificial heart of his own — using 3D printed parts and pieces of plumbing, reports Science Focus.
“We had no money to do anything like animal studies, that was just way too expensive. So my dad and I built a circulation system that replicated the human body,” Timms told Science Focus.
“We’d just go to Bunnings, our large hardware store here in Australia, and build up a circulation loop to test to see if it was providing good flow and pressure to the various areas of the artificial body that we created. Then we refined the devices from there.”
A new hope: Currently, artificial hearts only sustain life for about 130 days (although a lucky few have lasted for over 4.5 years), but BiVACOR promises to last as much as ten years. The company has tested it in a cow, which lived and was healthy 90 days later and could exercise on a treadmill. And the heart has been temporarily placed in humans just before they received an actual heart transplant.
Having just secured $22 million in funding, BiVACOR is finally preparing to launch its first human trials. Successful human trials could mean patients no longer have to wait and hope that a donor heart will become available to them.
“We are already envisioning these first human trials,” Timms and his colleagues wrote in IEEE Spectrum. “Gravely ill patients will go into the operating room with failing biological hearts beating feebly in their chests, and come out of surgery with smoothly functioning BiVACOR artificial hearts whirring away… If these patients can rise from their hospital beds, hug their family members, and continue their lives for many years to come, we’ll have taken a great step forward in the long quest for a total artificial heart.”
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