The 8,000 patients who are waiting for a heart transplant at any
given time soon may have new hope.
Marvin Slepian ’77, a cardiologist at the University of
Arizona, has been directing the development of a completely artificial
heart — made of plastic and titanium — to replace the
pump and valve functions of a human heart and allow patients to
survive for up to three years while they wait for a heart to become
available. About 30 percent of patients die while waiting to receive
a heart transplant.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the new heart in October.
Leading cardiology centers will start training doctors to implant
the devices next year, says Slepian, the founder and CEO of SynCardia
Systems, a developer of biomechanical cardiac devices. “When
a patient has irreversible biventricular failure, that patient is
in imminent danger of dying. The total artificial heart will provide
complete circulatory replacement,” Slepian says.
A self-described “crazy science kid,” Slepian has
been inventing things since his youth when he made projects for
science fairs. A biochemical sciences major at Princeton, he had
planned on specializing in oncology or infectious diseases. But
during his medical residency he was drawn to cardiology, which seemed
to be a field in which he could successfully solve medical problems.
In cardiology, “you could actually fix something and make
it better,” says Slepian, who holds almost 60 patents.
The artificial heart, implanted in the chest, will be hooked up
to a pump the size of a washing machine, by way of a pair of tubes
that will stick out from the patient’s lower chest. The pump,
plugged into a wall socket, will push pressurized air into the heart,
causing it to expand and contract like a human heart would.
The next step for Slepian is developing a smaller pump that would
run on batteries, so that patients could move about and live at
home. Slepian believes the artificial heart could one day be used
as a permanent device instead of simply an interim measure. “We
get excited in medicine about a chemotherapy drug that buys you
six months of life. With the artificial heart we have a device that
could buy you three to five years,” he says.
By Anne Ruderman ’01
Anne Ruderman ’01 is a journalist in Concord, N.H.