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Heart Assist Pump

A miniaturized ventricular-assist pump, developed for heart patients using NASA technology, has been successfully implanted into seven people in European clinical trials. More than 20 additional implants are expected by mid-1999.

The tiny device has functioned normally and to specification, said Dallas Anderson, president and CEO of MicroMed Technology Inc. of Houston, TX, the company to which NASA granted exclusive rights for the pump. Specific medical information on the individual patients is confidential. But one person has undergone a successful heart transplant after 75 days with the device implanted in his chest. That, Anderson said, demonstrates the pump's capability to keep a patient alive until a donor heart becomes available.

Initially called the NASA/DeBakey heart pump, it is based in part on technology used in Space Shuttle fuel pumps. It is intended as a longterm "bridge" to transplant, or as a more permanent device to help patients toward recovery leading to a more normal life. About 5 million Americans suffer from heart failure annually. Approximately 35,000 heart failure patients need transplants each year, but only 2,500 donor hearts are available.

Image: Dr. DeBakey and patient David Saucier
Dr. Michael DeBakey, at right in this file photo, holds the MicroMed-DeBakey VAD (ventricular assist device), a tiny heart-assist pump. With him is one of his heart transplant patients, David Saucier, a NASA Johnson Space Center engineer.

The concept for the pump began with talks between Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Michael DeBakey and one of his heart transplant patients, NASA engineer David Saucier, who worked at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Saucier knew first-hand the urgency heart-failure patients feel waiting for a donor heart. He also knew Space Shuttle technology.

Six months after his 1984 heart transplant, Saucier was back at work. With fellow NASA employees, Dr. DeBakey, Dr. George Noon and other Baylor College of Medicine staff, Saucier worked evenings and weekends on the initial pump design.

During the effort Saucier said: "Since my own transplant, I have spent a lot of time visiting people who are waiting for a donor heart." He said he felt a sense of urgency to develop the pump. NASA began funding the project in 1992. Saucier died in 1996.

The result was a remarkable battery-operated pump -- 2 inches long, 1 inch in diameter and weighing less than four ounces -- that seems to be an answer to the decades-long quest to develop an
implantable ventricular-assist pump. And it is small enough to fit into a child's chest.

NASA, in keeping with its mission of transferring space-based technology to the private sector, wanted to license the pump to a company that could further develop and test it to bring it into public use.

After intense competition, MicroMed was granted exclusive rights to it in 1996. Anderson said MicroMed was selected partly because it intended to develop the pump as a unit rather than use parts of the technology in other development projects.

Such pumps have three potential problems -- destruction of red blood cells, formation of blood clots and the body's reaction to a more continuous blood flow rather than the normal pulsed flow of blood. The Johnson team, with help from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, used super computers to analyze shuttle fuel-flow dynamics to reduce red cell damage to a point comfortably below acceptable limits. The improved flow pattern also reduces the tendency for clots to form. No adverse neurological effects have been seen in the implant patients due to the pump's more continuous flow of blood.

In the two years after receiving the license, MicroMed gained international quality and electronic standards certifications, got permission to begin clinical trials in Europe and implanted the
first device. The first patient, a 56-year-old man received what is now called the DeBakey VAD(TM) in Berlin in November 1998. The company hopes to begin U.S. clinical trials in mid-1999.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2004
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