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The University of Utah continues to hold a preeminent position in the development of artificial hearts - the mechanical devices that could help save the lives of thousands of Americans who need, but can't get, human transplants, U. officials said Wednesday.

The heart program has been pumping strongly since Seattle dentist Barney Clark became the first recipient of the Jarvik-7 (now called the Symbion-7) permanent artificial heart at the U. seven years ago.In fact, if the federal Food and Drug Administration gives the green light - U. surgeons could be replacing a human heart with the Utah-100, another pneumatically driven artificial heart by early 1990.

The device, developed at the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering, will be used on a temporary basis - no longer than 30 days - as a bridge to human heart transplantation.

According to Dr. Gregory Burns, 11 different artificial devices, including the Symbion-7, have been used in 15 different countries on more than 200 patients for various periods of time.

But many more men and women in the United States alone, he said, could be aided by the devices.

Burns, director of the biomedical division, Artificial Heart Research Lab, said 35,000 to 50,000 people await cardiac transplants annually in the United States. Because a maximum of only 2,000 quality human heart donors are available, one in four transplant patients die because they can't get hearts.

Additionally, the American Heart Association estimated that, during 1989, some 376,000 Americans would die in the hospital of heart attacks; half that many more would die at home or in transit to the hospital.

"I am not suggesting that all of these people receive artificial hearts because many of the patients are extremely old with many other debilitating diseases," said Dr. Donald B. Olsen, institute director. "But certainly there is a large percent (perhaps 80 percent) of these patients that, given a suitable artificial heart for long-term application, could be helped."

Olsen believes two other devices, being developed at the U. Institute for Biomedical Engineering, will be lifesavers.

-Within the next three years, a totally implantable, electrically powered artificial heart could be ready for application. The U. is one of four groups that received funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop the revolutionary device.

-A totally implantable, electric ventricular assist device, called EVAD, may be within four years of clinical application. The device, which would supplement, rather than replace the damaged heart, is being developed through a consortium of the U., Canadian government, Ottawa Heart Institute and a Canadian industrial partner - St. Jude.

While Olsen believes "Utah is way out in front in artificial heart research," lack of funding has hindered progress.

"Money has been a definite problem. Our overall budget is a little over $2 million a year in artificial research program," he said. "From hard state tax money we get $120,000. The balance comes primarily from grants and contracts. But the competitiveness of acquiring federal funds through grant mechanisms is very difficult."

Olsen is convinced the artificial heart ultimately will not only save lives - but health-care dollars.

"It is very expensive to die with congestive heart failure (an estimated $65,000 the last year of life)," Olsen said. "We look forward to the time when the artificial heart might bring a large percentage of those patients back into productive society where they are taxpayers and they participate in society as grandfathers and grandmothers."


(Additional information)

The beat goes on

-11 different devices were used

-15 countries authorized use

-41 teams performed operations

-177 recipients later received transplants