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Artificial Heart Buys Time Until Transplant

Study Shows It Benefits Patients Waiting for Donor Heart

Advantage Over Current Treatments

With heart failure, the heart's main pumping chambers -- or ventricles -- become too weak to pump blood. Currently, doctors implant a device in some patients called a "ventricular assist device" to help the heart pump blood. But when both of the heart's pumping chambers fail, these devices may not be effective.

But the artificial heart may be a solution for these patients. To implant the device, surgeons cut off the bottom half of the heart and sew the artificial heart onto the top chambers; it's then powered by a large, washing machine-sized air generator to keep blood pumping until an actual heart can be transplanted. A smaller, more portable unit is being developed to allow patients more mobility following implantation, says Slepian.

Still, his study shows that the artificial heart malfunctioned in 17% of patients, causing death in one patient. The device also resulted in infection in 77% and bleeding in 62%. Fitting the bulky device proved troublesome in 5%, and about one-third developed respiratory problems.

Most of these complications were minor, says Slepian, but had to be noted for the FDA panel review. "If they had a slight temperature bump, we noted it as an infection, but nothing was life-threatening," he tells WebMD.

One Life Worth the Effort

One expert not involved in the research says the artificial heart and this study deserve notice.

"Since the 1980s, more than 6 million people have died of heart failure in the United States alone. A mere fraction of that group -- fewer than 50,000 patients -- received transplants," Dale G. Renlund, MD, director of the Heart Failure Prevention and Treatment Program at the University of Utah, writes in an accompanying editorial.

"Although not all patients with heart failure can currently be saved ... we should embrace this technology because it increases our ability to help some patients."

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