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Heart Disease Health Center

State-of-the-Art Artificial Heart

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

July 5, 2001 (Washington) -- It's been almost 20 years since doctors at the University of Utah announced successfully implanting a total artificial heart in Barney Clark. But euphoria rapidly lead to tough questions as Clark's health deteriorated during his grueling 112 days on the Jarvik 7.

Did the gain outweigh the pain? What quality of life did the machine provide for people like Clark, a lifelong smoker whose heart was barely pumping blood? Now there's a new-generation artificial heart, and backers say it's light-years away from the Jarvik 7.

The older device relied on a cumbersome external air compressor for power, and on tubes that run through holes in the skin and drive a plastic and aluminum pump. By contrast, the AbioCor manufactured by ABIOMED uses a radically different approach: The business end of the grapefruit-sized device is totally implanted inside the body.

It's the first machine of this type to replace a failing heart, and it's been decades in the making. "This is probably the most sophisticated, bio-engineered implant that's ever been made," says John Watson, MD, who heads the clinical and molecular medicine program at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Watson says he's been both coach and cheerleader for the artificial heart program for some 25 years. The effort to develop a machine to replace the heart dates back at least to 1963, he says, when famous cardiovascular surgeon Michael DeBakey, MD, told a U.S. Senate committee that such a machine was needed.

"It's [been] kind of a long dream in a way," says DeBakey, who tells WebMD the new device sounds promising. At the time of the original proposal, however, he says, the director of the National Institutes of Health felt the artificial heart was a "waste of money," because there wasn't enough scientific information to justify proceeding.

However, over the next three decades that situation changed dramatically as the contribution of federal dollars increased. Watson says that $100 million was pumped into artificial heart research while a similar amount of money was directed to heart-assisting devices.

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