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  Search for the Perfect Heart
Photo of  Bob Tools

With just 30 days to live, Bob Tools became the first to receive the Abiomed total artificial heart.

In the winter of 2001, FRONTIERS reported on a promising new, self-contained artificial heart made by Abiomed. Since then, the Abiomed heart has entered into human trials and, today, shows some promise in helping the 700,000 Americans that die from heart failure each year. In this segment, we recap the long road that artificial heart research has traveled, and the problems scientists still face in making this much-needed device a reality.

It was 1982 when Barney Clarke first made headlines as the recipient of his artificial heart, the Jarvik 7. But when Clarke died after four months and other implant attempts proved unsuccessful, the device was abandoned. While researchers headed back to the drawing board, a new invention entered the scene - the "left ventricle assist device" or L-VAD. This mechanical pump is implanted to help a weakened heart send blood around the body, allowing a patient to buy crucial time while awaiting a transplant. FRONTIERS met one such L-VAD patient in 1993, Michael Dorsey, who today, having received his transplant, is still going strong.

The Abiomed heart, unlike the L-VAD but like the Jarvik 7, is intended to replace an ailing heart permanently. But unlike both devices, the Abiomed does not need tubes to penetrate the skin, powered instead by a battery that's rechargeable through the skin. As its developer David Lederman tells Alan, one of Abiomed's chief concerns is the prevention of deadly clots that can form as the blood circulates through the device. But with its smooth surfaces and two powerful pumping chambers, the Abiomed performed well in its initial trials in animals.

Photo of Cow with Abiomend heart  

Comparable in size to humans, calves were Abiomed's early test patients.


By spring of 2001, the Abiomed heart was ready for human trials and Bob Tools was its first recipient. Once given only days to live, the bed-ridden Tools was soon able to move about and even go on a few short outings. Doctors then performed four additional transplants with the new heart. Tools lived for nearly five months, but eventually succumbed to a stroke. To date, two patients are still alive, but there has been one other fatal stroke. Abiomed is currently redesigning the heart in an attempt to eliminate all potential clot-forming parts. Implants for a further nine patients have been approved, but are on hold.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
Searching for a Substitute
Artificial Alan


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