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Unless the University of Utah's artificial heart research program gets a transfusion of outside funds this month, the U. may pull the plug on it.

The program has been a world leader in the drive to develop mechanical devices to sustain life after the failure of a human heart. One of its greatest achievements was the creation of the compressed-air-powered heart that kept dentist Barney Clark alive for nearly four months in 1982 and 1983.But late last year it lost its major source of funding, the National Institutes of Health research contract that pumped an estimated $1 million yearly into the research program over two decades.

Scrambling to keep the program alive, the U. came up with approximately $250,000 to tide it over through the end of June. The understanding then was that for the program to continue, it must come up with outside funding.

So far, it hasn't succeeded in landing any huge new grants, and time is running out.

University President Arthur K. Smith told the Deseret News on Wednesday that the Institute for Biomedical Engineering - which has been working on the heart program - "like many others at the U., cannot be sustained with institutional funds. It depends on outside money."

When the NIH stopped funding the program, "we were very concerned with that," Smith said.

Reluctant to let the program fall apart, the university came up with about a quarter of a million dollars to keep paying the institute's expenses, including the salaries of staff members. "These are the people who were paid by the university from an NIH grant," he said.

If the team disbanded but then outside funding became available, the university would be hard-pressed to assemble the group again.

"The money we used to tide them over is reimbursed overhead, or indirect cost recovery," Smith said. That means it was not from funds given to the university by the Legislature or obtained through tuition or patent returns.

The money came from grants agencies such as the NIH and the National Science Foundation to cover general indirect costs such as lighting or heating that would be too difficult to tally from project to project.

The amount of funding to cover indirect costs is negotiated with the government, and is generally around 50 percent of a direct grant.

For example, if the NIH gives the university $100,000 in a direct grant, the actual amount it receives is $150,000 to cover indirect costs, too.

All of the indirect cost money coming to the U. goes into a single kitty, which the university can use.

"By action of the Legislature, the U. retains the reimbursed overhead and uses it for the development of new research programs. This is the kind of use to which we'd put that money, to keep a research team going."

The artificial heart group has until the end of June to come up with new outside funding, although decisions about continuing the program may have to be made by the middle of the month.

"Nothing has come forward, although hope is not completely gone," Smith said.

The program's continuation is in doubt, but not because of action by the university, but because the federal government didn't renew funding, he emphasized.

Asked whether the program probably will be terminated, he said, "We've been apprehensive about it since last fall . . . One thing is clear: We can't sustain a program of that magnitude with university funds. Like any other major research program, it is going to have to survive by being competitive and successful in getting outside funding."

Smith added, "Research projects, institutes, centers come and go."