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Japan and other foreign countries can now take an irreversible lead in one of the few technological areas where the United States currently excels - the development of a totally implantable artificial heart.

That's the opinion of Dr. Donald B. Olsen, director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Division of Artificial Organs at the University of Utah.Olsen late Friday responded to Thursday's announcement that the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is giving up on efforts to develop an artificial heart. Institute officials said that from now on, government support will concentrate instead on developing a smaller pump that can assist, rather than replace, a failing heart.

This "deals a major blow to the artificial heart program in the United States," said Olsen, whose program funding will be severely slashed.

In January, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute granted $4,592,000 to the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering to develop a totally implantable, electrically powered artificial heart - one of the largest federal contracts ever awarded to the U.

Additionally, the Utah Centers of Excellence program awarded matching funds of $500,000 and the university awarded $600,000 to produce the device by 1992. Olsen said he doesn't know how those matching funds will be affected by the national institute's decision.

But he emphasized that loss of the federal funds will be highly detrimental to both university-based research institutions and private companies, since both groups depend heavily on federal funding.

Olsen said he and his colleagues have not yet seen a copy of the official announcement by the National Institutes of Health, but it appears that termination of the program was a unilateral decision on the part of NIH.

"To our knowledge, no scientific or medical group within the field of artificial organs believes that the program should be terminated because of lack of scientific merit, or because of unacceptable medical complications," he said.

He was referring to the institute's statement that every attempt at total heart replacement has resulted in the patient dying of either infection or stroke caused by blood clots that develop within the mechanical heart.

Friday morning other U. officials expressed optimism that Utah will continue to lead the nation in heart research, despite the cut in federal funding.

"We have people who are in the forefront now in the area of ventricular assist devices, and there is probably no institution further advanced than the U. in the area of biomedical materials," said John Dwan, spokesman for the U. Health Sciences Center.

Because people are dying of heart disease and there simply won't be enough human hearts available for transplants, Dwan said U. researchers "are confident that downstream the need for an artificial heart will re-emerge."

But Olsen's message was more one of gloom and doom.

"There can be no reasonable expectation that the total artificial heart program will continue in the future."

He said it is "scientifically unsound" to presume that the left ventricle assist device program will lead to substantial gains in total artificial heart technology. The left ventricle assist device and total artificial heart are designed to treat different patient populations, he explained.

"It is regrettable that the director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has elected to debate scientific issues in the public press," Olsen added.

The U. scientist also took issue with the institute's statement that $240 million has been invested in the development of the artificial heart. "I'm quite sure this figure must include money spent on all blood pumps - total artificial heart, ventricular assist systems and biomaterials. It also includes support of the development of thermal energy engines."

Olsen said that, in terminating funding to the program, the director has elected to disregard the recommendations of the institute advisory council in 1985, the U.S. Congress in 1986 and numerous other scientific review groups.