A study unveiled this month showed that children who need a heart transplant can live longer on an artificial heart pump than with traditional methods.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the artificial heart — called the Pediatric Ventricular Assist Device — in December 2011. But a paper summarizing the study of the use of the heart in 1,000 children over several years, demonstrating the device’s benefits and safety, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August, reports Voice of America.
The device is able to pump blood to match the patient’s size. The device assists the failing heart with tubes attached through the chest. “Our hearts are designed to inject the amount of blood that our body needs, so this pump is designed to be commensurate in size to the patient,” says Dr. Charles Fraser, chief surgeon at Texas Children’s Hospital, who was the principal investigator in the study that involved 17 institutions in North America and Europe.
Children who need a heart transplant often have a long wait for a suitable donor. Often they are kept alive but sedated and immobile for weeks until a donor is found. With the artificial device — often called the Berlin heart because it was first developed in Germany — patients remain awake and the pump can keep them alive for as long as 192 days.
“Blood going through the valve into the pumping chamber pumps through the valve — these are one-way valves, the blood can only go in the direction of the arrows, back to the body,” Dr. Fraser says.
He used the device seven years ago on a tiny infant. “This patient was dying. We were able to support him with the device, actually a device this size. He subsequently achieved a cardiac transplant, and he is doing great,” he says.
The downside to the device is that about 30% of the patients who use the device suffer mild strokes, the study found. This risk is acceptable, given the much higher survival rate the pump achieves, Fraser says.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.