Artificial Hearts Promise to Help Patients Without Donors

March 7, 2020
A group of scientists from OHSU has managed to develop a new artificial heart that could be used in heart transplants in the near future.

A multidisciplinary group of researchers is developing artificial hearts that could be an alternative to heart transplants. What are they made of? How do they work? In this article we’ll attempt to answer these questions.

Heart transplants

Heart transplants are surgical operations in which a weak heart, that is no longer functioning properly, is replaced by a healthy one from a donor.

These are complex operations that carry certain risks. These risks, combined with the scarcity of donors, make heart transplants an intervention that are only used as a last resort.

Thus, heart transplants are only for people with serious heart conditions that haven’t had success with any other type of treatment, like taking certain medicines or other, less drastic surgeries.

chest pain artificial heart

However, heart disease is very prevalent in humans and is the leading cause of death in many countries. There are many conditions that can make a heart transplant necessary as a last resort. Among them we have:

  • Coronary diseases
  • Ventricular arrhythmia
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Heart valve diseases
  • Weakening of heart muscles

All of these afflictions end up weakening the heart, which can culminate in heart failure. In this disease, the heart keeps pumping blood, but it does it so weakly and isn’t able to pump enough blood to the whole body.

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Factors to keep in mind for heart transplants

Due to the lack of organs for transplant, experts will carefully select the perfect candidate for a transplant. Because of this, there are certain factors doctors keep in mind when selecting the ideal candidate.

Aspects like old age, the presence of other illnesses like alcoholism, and tobacco addiction can keep the affected person from receiving a heart transplant. In many of these cases, the patient is left without any treatment options.

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Artificial heart valves

For those people who can’t get a heart transplant, the development of ventricular assist devices is a fantastic option.

Ventricular assist devices (VAD) are mechanical pumps that get implanted in the chest, connected to the heart. They transmit electrical impulses that help the heart to pump correctly and more strongly.

However, this type of treatment is normally only a temporary option. They are often applied as a stopgap while the patient awaits a heart transplant.

A stethoscope monitoring a heart.

Artificial hearts

For all the previously mentioned cases in which a heart transplant from a donor is not an option, the idea that artificial hearts could replace a damaged heart is a huge source of hope.

In this context, research from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), seems to show that a bright future is closer than it seemed a while ago.

Some time ago, OHSU was already the first to develop an artificial heart valve. Now, they’re researching the field of heart transplants, building a team of scientists from diverse fields.

The research team, made up of engineers, doctors, and researchers was able to develop a prosthetic heart, completely artificial, with which they seem to have achieved promising results.

Artificial hearts: What are they made of?

The prosthesis would have two artificial, titanium ventricles. These ventricles have a mechanism that lets blood flow through, pushing it through the body. The “heart” would have a controller and a battery. The patient carries the controller in their pocket, but, in the future, a transplant version could become available that doctors would place under the skin.

The prosthesis’ simple design is its biggest advantage. Due to the small number of pieces and the absence of valves, there are fewer parts that could break or fail.

Currently, the group has two prototypes. The first is for heart transplants in large animals, like cows. The other is designed for smaller heart transplants, like in sheep. This second option would be the right size to transplant in humans.

As a matter of fact, they have done various clinical trials on animals, which have responded well to the transplants. Of course, these promising results have boosted the research, and it seems likely that in a short time we will see these in humans.

Update: The heart transplant program at OHSU had been going for 30 years when they suspended it. And, according to information in the Scientific Registry of Transplant, they were able to do 30 heart transplants between 2015 and 2016. In the summer of 2019 the team announced the possibility of reactivating the program.