Artificial Heart article

Artificial Heart article - Scientific American Special...

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Scientific American Special Editions - February 7, 2008 The Artificial Heart: Not Just a Pump The goal of building a safe artificial heart has frustrated bioengineers for more than four decades. At last, an end could be in sight By Wray Herbert In the late 1970s American television viewers were captivated by a weekly drama called The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors as secret agent Steve Austin. Austin was a cyborg, a flesh-and-blood man brought back from near death and bioengineered to be superhuman in strength, speed and vision. During the series’s five-year run, Austin entered the popular idiom as “the bionic man.” An era of technological optimism had been gathering momentum since the 1960s, in large part following the stunning successes of the space program. There was a growing confidence that American scientific ingenuity could engineer almost anything—including the human body. Indeed, at the same time that astronauts started flying into space, the government also set its sights on the gold ring of bioengineering: a permanent mechanical replacement for the human heart. Fast forward to May 1988, when the New York Times dismissed the entire concept of an artificial human heart as the “Dracula of Medical Technology,” a hubristic $240-million boondoggle. The paper’s editorialists opined tersely: “The Federal project to create an implantable artificial heart is dead.” What happened? How did the grand hopes of bioengineering a human heart turn to such cynicism in just a decade? There is a long answer and a short answer to that question. The long answer is complex, encompassing several strands of basic science and technology, from materials to batteries to motors and microprocessors, plus a healthy dose of marketing psychology. The Times may have been premature in writing off the whole enterprise, which many believe is more promising today than ever before. Nevertheless, deconstructing the early setbacks offers a useful lens on recent progress and further challenges. The short answer is Barney Clark. Clark was a Seattle dentist who, in 1982, became the first recipient of a permanent mechanical heart. “Permanent” is something of a grisly misnomer, because Clark lasted only 112 days. More to the point, they were 112 miserable days for the 61-year-old, who never left the hospital and was tethered the entire time to a refrigerator-size compressor powering his noisy new heart. He suffered convulsions, cognitive problems and kidney failure, then died of massive organ failure.
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The mechanical heart that kept Clark alive for those months was the so-called Jarvik-7, named after its inventor, Robert Jarvik. The nation followed Clark’s progress with rapt attention, fueled by daily press conferences, which turned quickly to sympathy and disappointment as the patient deteriorated. The case was a public-relations disaster for the Jarvik-7. The quality of Clark’s life with his new heart was so poor that it turned public opinion sour on the idea for a decade. Four more patients would receive permanent
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Artificial Heart article - Scientific American Special...

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