Meeko the calf stood nuzzling a pile of hay. He didn't seem to have much appetite, and he looked a little bored. Every now and then, he glanced up, as though wondering why so many people with clipboards were standing around watching him.
Fourteen hours earlier, I'd watched doctors lift Meeko's heart from his body and place it, still beating, in a plastic dish. He looked no worse for the experience, whisking away a fly with his tail as he nibbled, demonstrably alive—though above his head, a monitor showed a flatlined pulse. I held a stethoscope to his warm, fragrant flank and heard, instead of the deep lub-dub of a heartbeat, what sounded like a dentist's drill or the underwater whine of an outboard motor. Something was keeping Meeko alive, but it was nothing like a heart.
As many as five million Americans suffer some form of heart failure, but only about 2,000 hearts a year become available for transplant. The obvious solution to that scarcity is to build an artificial heart, and how hard could that be? The heart's just a pump, after all, and people have been making pumps since the Mesopotamians invented the shadoof to raise river water 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. Doctors started thinking seriously about replacing the heart with a machine around the time Harry Truman was president.
To understand why they still haven't succeeded, pick up a two-pound barbell and start curling it. Two pounds: nothing. But see how long you can keep it up. Twenty minutes? An hour? Two? Your heart does that all day and all night—35 million beats a year—for as long as you live, without ever taking a rest. Manufacturing a metal and plastic heart capable of beating that way for more than about 18 months has so far proved impossible.
The problem is the "beating" part. Among the first to envision an artificial heart was, amazingly, the ventriloquist Paul Winchell. When not in front of a TV camera manipulating his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, Winchell was developing patents, some 30 in all, including one for an artificial heart that he invented with Dr. Henry Heimlich, of the eponymous anti-choking maneuver. Back then, and up through the famous Jarvik-7—the first machine to replace a human heart, in 1982, albeit briefly—inventors could only imagine imitating the heart's lub-dub. That is, they envisioned filling a chamber with deoxygenated blood returning from the body and pumping it out to the lungs to be infused with oxygen—lub—and then drawing that good red blood back into a second chamber and pumping it back out to the body—dub.
It turns out that imitating a beating heart with metal and plastic has several limitations. First, the Jarvik-7 and its successors that are still in use require an air compressor outside the body. Through hoses that pierce the skin, the compressor fills a balloon inside one of the Jarvik's chambers, pushing blood to the lungs. Then it fills a second balloon in another chamber to push blood back out to the body. The two balloons inflate and deflate in an alternating rhythm. It works, but it also means that a patient has to sit beside a big, noisy compressor 24 hours a day. That's better than dying of heart failure, but it doesn't make for a great quality of life. Barney Clark, the first person to live entirely on a Jarvik-7, asked his doctors several times, during his 112 days on the device, to let him die.
Clark probably would not have been able to hang on much longer in any case. Those balloons, and all other moving parts in a beating mechanical heart, wear out quickly. That's why, almost 30 years after the first Jarvik-7, artificial hearts remain what is delicately termed "bridges to transplant"—something to keep you alive until a real heart can be found.
A transplantable heart, alas, is an increasingly rare find. It has to come from a person who is in the blush of good health and also, somehow, dead. As cars have gotten safer and states have passed laws requiring seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, the number of such hearts has dwindled. The need for hearts, on the other hand, has grown with the world's population and the conquering of other diseases. And even when a heart is found, patients face the risk of tissue rejection.
Building a heart that mimics nature's lub-dub may be as comically shortsighted as Leonardo da Vinci designing a flying machine with flapping wings. Nature is not always the best designer, at least when it comes to things that humans must build and maintain. So the newest artificial heart doesn't imitate the cardiac muscle at all. Instead, it whirs like a little propeller, pushing blood through the body at a steady rate. After 500 million years of evolution accustoming the human body to blood moving through us in spurts, a pulse may not be necessary. That, in any case, is the point of view of the 50-odd calves, and no fewer than three human beings, who have gotten along just fine with their blood coursing through them as evenly as Freon through an air conditioner.
"His giant heartbeat," Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of God early in the past century, "is diverted in us into little pulses." Nowadays, maybe not.
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I had the HeartMate II, that they describe in the article, for just over a year. It is an amazing machine. I figured this would be the natural next step in the technology.
Heart patient Stuart Swanson had the HeartMate II implanted in 2010. His book, "Living Without a Pulse," was recently published - it details his experiences.
So... if a guy with a continuous flow gets in a serious car wreck, is unconscious, and the paramedics arrive to check him out... are they going to check his pulse, not feel it, call him dead, and move on to the next victim? Just sayin'!
Speaking of da Vinci, he actually was to first to envision an artificial heart. In fact, he created a fully-functional aorta out of wood.
Quit trolling us @marcoreid... When this officially goes out into the market, paramedics will just have to be trained differently with procedures using gadgets that haven't been invented yet to detect the HeartMate or similar device. I'm sure that would be noted on the victim's identification anyways and if you get in a wreck with one of those, chances are the batteries will get disconnected...
Quit feeding trolls @ShinyHoboFTW
bored? lets go mine the stars... ^^
It's not that I'm trolling, but I'm actually curious. Maybe that wasn't the best scenario to ask. So here's one from real life. I was at a function just a few days ago where a gentleman slumped over unconscious. A few guys helped get him flat on the floor, and checked his pulse, which he still had, while they called 911. There were no paramedics around, no special equipment. Most of these guys have been trained over the years (as scouts, scoutmasters, lifeguards, etc) to check for a pulse and if there isn't one, begin chest compressions. How does the non-professional with no equipment know when someone with such a pump needs chest compressions? It's a real question.
This is incredible technology. This goes hand in hand with the concept of The Singularity, when intelligent robots will be among us the future.
Related, you can see the future of human-like robots on this page here: uncoverthebest.com
A medical bracelet like people with pace makers and allergies wear I would imagine.
"I have a turbine heart and no pulse, please don't pound on my chest."
@marcoreid Good point... I really hadn't thought about that kind of scenario.
I have subscribed to and enjoyed Popular Science since I was a teenager (I am now 62!) and this article about a no-pulse artificial heart is just exceptional!! It shows that our sometimes preconceived notions, such as, we must have pulsing blood flow and high speed turbines will damage the blood cells, sometimes hold us back from new ideas. It takes people with open minds to circumvent these notions and create wonderful things that can change the world as we know it.
And in the same issue, I really enjoyed "The boy who played with fusion". Maybe someday a compact fusion reactor will power the artificial heart eliminating the external battery pack.
Keep up with these great articles and I will be a lifetime subscriber.
I'm curious as to how the 'natural'-heart is able to heal? If the coronary arteries receive blood through the recoils of the systemic arteries during diastole, how can the the blood be pumped into the coronary arteries in absence of this diastolic-pause/recoil?
I've always thought about a streaming heart, never thought it was practical. I bet bleeding would be a problem. Instead of a continuous pump that's buying you time for platelettes to settle, a steady stream would probably make it much difficult to heal.
I am very curious as to how a heart that theoretically never wears out affects the aging of the rest of the body. Heart failure is a major cause of death by old age. If the heart never slows down or loses efficiency, the other vital organs would continue to receive a good supply of blood. If they were in reasonably good condition at the time the mechanical heart is implanted, it stands to reason that they could keep functioning for a very long time.
Miniaturization will eventually allow the use of magnetic bearings in the motors which don't wear out at all. There could even be neurological connections to slow and speed up the hear according to the body's need. This could begin a whole new era in medicine.
HOW DOES HE DO THOSE AWESOME MAGIC TRICKs???
Ebb and flow are important activities in the human body. Just because the heart pumps with a systolic and diastolic pressures doesn't mean there are other parts of the body that don't need this ebb and flow function.
Having a constant pressure in the body will cause cells to not eliminate some of their waste or take in necessary nutrients.
I'll pass unless I'm waiting a short time for a replacement heart. Accident or stem cell produced.
Is it sad that I would almost willingly give up my fully functional heart for one of these continues flow hearts, just because my family has a nasty history of heart problems developing after age 50?
The LVAD’s definitely amazing especially that in some situations it can help a heart heal!
I wonder if cloning a patients heart will ever become viable & reliable? If heart cloning ever becomes a reality, the LVAD could obviously be used while a patient awaits a cloned heart to grow & be readied for implantation.
SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY
Has the inbreeding been going on for decades in your family?
Seriously, why do you not even try to write a decent sentence? I am sure you have a clear thought,..... I hope?!
Sir, please take the time and effort to write a complete sentence, thank you.
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
My concern would be; is there a slight rise in blood temperature from an impeller spinning at 10,000 RPM. Temp rise is a common problem in similarly built industrial devices. Also, the destructive effects of cavitation on the impeller from running at high speed. Of course, a magazine article response column isn't exactly the place to find these answers.
I'm betting that there are going to be problems that this heart creates just by the very fact that it doesn't 'Beat'.
Don't know how long they will take to show up but my money is on Nature being smarter then we are and that's why hearts 'Beat'...especially if you believe in Evolution.
It might not show up or be important in 'old' people but if your a child or a kid or young adult I suppose that is when things will go south.
Just my guess.
nothing wrong with your opinion but to argue the other side, nature is quite limited in the tools and materials it has to work with. I would say that the designs are limited but are perfected over many millions of years so are very efficient despite those limitation.
I doubt very much that heat could be an issue. Our bodies are quite adept at adding or removing far greater quantities of heat. Regarding the cavitation, I don't really know but I would think the particular environment along with material selection would minimize that greatly if not completely. Again I'm only guessing but I would think that creating air bubbles in the blood would be a no-no to begin with!
LOL ... I don't think it is sad at all. I'm sure others had the same thought and it will become a common question in the future for various "artiparts". Take care of your heart as best you can.
Am I the only one who's completelty blown away by this? This is such am amazing idea, and the fact that it's actually in working technology form? Wow.
I was wondering about the sped up 'heart' rate.
1. If you get a large laceration on your thigh, will you gush blood like a garden hose?
2. Since the blood is moving faster, does that mean that a person with this artificial heart could excersize more vigoriously without tiring as fast?
I may have missed that part. I don't see why the blood flow would be faster. Rather it should be slower but constant. I suppose you might bleed out slower too as the pressure is reduced. I would assume the volume being moved is still the same. Also, no accelerated heart rate from shock. No Monty Python squirting!
I just want to correct myself about the "air bubbles". I'm not sure but would think that they would actually be vacuum bubbles. However, the archimedean screw should still produce vastly smaller quantities of those compared to a fan/propeller. The dynamics should be simpler and the contact area much larger.
Just hope they are not so expensive that you need to finance them and are later unable to pay resulting in repossession.
I wonder... for people with constant blood flow, would their orgasms be a constant spurt instead of the heart beat pumping waves?
That doctor was brave enought to help that poor boy. The tests they did are great. They should try to expand it;try giving a heart to a squirrel or a turtle,something like that. Or it could be like in the Terminator;humans half robot. We could still live with heart and all and be a robot at the same time. Does anybody agree?
Does anyone know if the high pitch whine can be heard and felt by the individual who has one of these devices, or similar devices?
I ask because I was wondering if the high pitch whine of such devices could drive very sensitive individuals insane.
Kind of like when someone scratches their fingernails on a chalk board, except continually, and even when they are trying to sleep.
The greatest inventor of all time is Jesus Christ!
He created everything first!