Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Beating Heart, Or A Reasonable Facsimile

I have been wanting to post about this ever since I first read about it four days ago at Futurismic. I'm finally getting a rest after several days of being hard at it in the back yard. What was once the equivalent of a mountain range of dirt, from our recent excavation, is now merely a rather noticeable hill. You think I'm exaggerating, but at one point the range was about five feet high, eight to ten feet deep, and about forty feet in total length. See--mountain range. We have been building raised beds to tuck the soil in, a twelve by twenty raised patio, and disbursing the rest to level out the yard. Boy howdy, am I tired, but happy to have been very productive. Now I'm feeling like I deserve a good long stretch in the merry, merry land of blogs (mine and all the others I've been missing for days.) All's right in my little world.

So what wonderful and amazing thing I have been waiting to get to for the last four days? Red Herring has news of an extra-cool medical breakthrough:

The first self-contained implanted artificial heart received U.S. government approval for patients who are all out of options and would otherwise die.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that Massachusetts-based Abiomed garnered the green light for their device that aims to prolong the life of those with advanced heart failure who are not eligible for a heart transplant and are unlikely to live more than a month without intervention.
Now someone whose heart is completely shot, but who can't get a regular transplant, for whatever reason (most likely that a donor heart simply isn't available, I would imagine), can opt for the artificial one. Well, let's say the folks with good insurance can opt for the artificial one. At $250,000 a pop, the price-tag is not for the faint of heart. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Since the artificial heart is implanted, the flesh and blood organ that's on the fritz is actually removed from the patient. The mechanical heart is a two pound monster, with a battery that's tucked into the abdomen. The charging process involves a power transfer coil and the patient's skin. Don't ask me how. That part isn't really intuitive, for the non-medically or mechanically trained (or maybe just me), and the article doesn't go into detail.

There are a few other limitations to the technology, besides price, which I'm sure will improve with time. One issue is size. The substitute heart, as I said, weighs in at two whole pounds right now, and is too large to fit into the chest cavity of most women. According to Red Herring, "Abiomed said it is developing a replacement heart that is 30 percent smaller, but has yet to start clinical trials." I would expect that the trend toward smallness that is the hallmark of technology (think cell phones and Ipods), would have the same effect on the artificial heart. Once the thing has been around for a while, and undergone the inevitable technological shrinkage, it'll probably make the Grinch's tiny ticker look oversized.

Another limitation that should get better with time is battery life. Right now, the internal battery can buy the patient about an hour away from a plug-in, enough time to wander around the hospital lobby for a bit of people watching. If you cart around an external back-up, the heart'll go two hours. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like much, but from what I've been reading about nanofiber batteries, pretty soon they'll probably be able to implant a battery the size of a postage stamp that will run the heart for the next decade. Two, if the patient doesn't take up jogging.

The Red Herring article looks at the medical results to date for patients fitted with this mechanical pumper. Right now the count of the patients who have actually opted for the artificial heart over the failing real one stands at 14. Most have gained a few months of life that they would not otherwise have known. One patient lived another 17 months, which is substantial when you consider what a breakthrough this is. One of the artificial heart recipients was even able to be discharged and go home.

I know that this doesn't necessarily sound all that exciting. We'd love to see every patient all better, and able to live out a full, healthy life. Most of these patients bought themselves a few more months of dreary walls and hospital food. However, they also helped in the progress of medicine, and those people who follow after them, who someday receive the smaller, refined, long-battery-life versions of this technology will be truly blessed because the first patients were willing to take the chance that what they went through would be worth it. Even for those who only gain a few months, that time could be so important. 17 months could be everything to that father who wants to be there for his daughter's wedding, or the mom who has a little more wisdom to pass to her children before she passes on herself. That's the benefit to patients in the short term. Over time, as the technology improves, the outcomes for patients are going to get better and better. This is a wonderful breakthrough.