Shortly after graduating from Starfleet Academy in 2327, Jean Luc-Picard got into a fight and was stabbed in the heart. The future commanding officer of the Starship Enterprise was rushed into surgery where his native heart was replaced with a totally implantable mechanical heart (in the episode: “Tapestry”). Of course, Jean Luc-Picard is a fictional character. There is no Starfleet Academy or Starship Enterprise. But hold on to your phasers, “Star Trek” fans … the totally implantable mechanical heart is about to get very real, probably in your lifetime.
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The “Bridge” Becomes a Destination
Up until recently, the only real treatment for end stage heart failure has been transplantation. The 1990s saw the development of ventricular assist devices (also known as VADs), which hung outside the chest and could assume the work of one or both of the heart’s pumping chambers. VADs are a stepping stone on the way to a completely artificial heart. They were first used as a “bridge” to keep failing hearts alive while patients waited for a donor heart to become available for transplant. But they’ve gotten so good over the years, that now they’re considered a destination therapy or lifelong alternative to heart transplant.
Dr. Kolff and the Holy Grail
While VADs have transformed the treatment of end-stage heart failure, the Holy Grail continues to be a totally implantable artificial heart. In 1956, Willem Kolff, MD, PhD, made history at Cleveland Clinic by keeping an animal alive for 90 minutes using an artificial heart of his own design. Dr. Kolff continued his work on artificial hearts at the University of Utah. In 1981, he got permission to implant his most advanced artificial heart into a human. The patient lived for 112 days. This proved to be far from the last word on the subject.
A Continuous Whoosh
Since the 1950s, Cleveland Clinic researchers have been building on Dr. Kolff’s legacy. They’ve built and tested at least three generations of artificial hearts. The latest is the most promising. Developed by a team led by cardiac surgeon Leonard Golding, MD, this remarkable device has only one moving part: a rotor, suspended in a magnetic field, which whooshes the blood through the body. The flow is continuous. No beating or pumping. It’s simpler than the imaginary mechanical heart implanted in the character played by actor Patrick Stewart (which looked like an ocarina with tentacles). The new heart has a titanium case, weighs less than a pound, and is about the size and shape of a can of tuna. Both the heart and its power source will fit completely and invisibly into the patient’s chest. Since none of the moving parts touch, it could theoretically run forever.
Humanity won’t have to wait until the 23rd century to see if the new heart succeeds or not. A company has been formed to test, develop and market the device, and investors have jumped on board. Human testing is expected to begin within the next five years. As Jean-Luc Picard liked to say, “Make it so!”