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.