Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the world. About 1.2 million Americans suffer from heart attacks every year. Approximately 2,000 Americans get heart transplants each year, but transplant hearts are in short supply, and many thousands of other advanced heart failure patients are left on the waiting list.
The ventricular assist device, or VAD, was designed to serve as a “bridge-to-transplant” device to keep a patient alive until a donor heart is available for transplant. In some cases, it may be intended as a “destination therapy” — long-term support for patients who are ineligible for transplant due to age or other circumstances.
Like many other medical technologies, the evolution of the VAD has benefited from NASA. In the 1990s, a collaboration between renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey and NASA resulted in the design of a better solution than what was already on the market. By applying their experience with simulating fluid flow through rocket engines, NASA engineers worked with doctors to analyze blood flow through the batterypowered heart pump. They suggested design improvements that led to the development of a miniaturized, highly efficient blood pump.
Approximately 3 inches long, 1 inch in diameter, and weighing less than 4 ounces, the pump was designed to be lower-cost, smaller, and less invasive than other commercially available ventricular assist devices. NASA patented the invention and licensed it to MicroMed Technology (Houston, TX) in 1996. MicroMed went on to refine the technology, which is now in its fifth generation: the HeartAssist 5™ VAD. The company recently partnered with Numerex Corp. to make this technology wireless, allowing for continual remote monitoring of data to clinicians, doctors, and technicians. MicroMed also makes the only FDAapproved pediatric VAD in the U.S., and was awarded a grant from NIH to develop a “pulse-less” total artificial heart using two MicroMed VADs — one to circulate blood throughout the body, and the other to circulate blood to and from the lungs.
Cardiovascular technology continues to make progress every day. Doctors in Italy achieved a new milestone in April 2012, when the world's smallest artificial heart was implanted in a 16- month-old boy. The device, a tiny titanium pump that weighed only 11 grams and could handle a blood flow of 1.5 liters a minute, successfully kept the infant alive for 13 days until a donor was found for a transplant.
Just as in the case of the DeBakey pump, collaboration between physicians and engineers in other industries may be key to improving heart pumps of the future. Doctors at the Texas Heart Institute are working with engineers from Cameron Manufacturing and Engineering (Houston, TX) to improve heart pumps and artificial heart technology. The engineers have created a mock prototype of the device (Fig. 1), and are still a long way from trials, but the hope is that the engineers can use their expertise in flow technologies and other applications in the energy field to help the physicians improve heart pumps in new, innovative ways.
This article will highlight a few other ongoing research advancements in the continually changing field of cardiovascular technology.
In yet another example of how cardiovascular technology is reaping the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration, a heartpowered pacemaker is now being developed by aerospace engineers at the University of Michigan. Pacemakers are minimachines that send electrical signals to the heart to keep it beating in a healthy rhythm. However, their batteries last only five to 10 years, creating the need for inconvenient battery replacement surgeries. Using research that originates from efforts to harvest energy from wing vibrations in light unmanned airplanes, the engineers are now trying to figure out how to harvest energy from the reverberation of heartbeats through the chest, and convert it to electricity to run a pacemaker or an implanted defibrillator.
“The idea is to use ambient vibrations that are typically wasted and convert them to electrical energy,” said Amin Karami, a research fellow in the U-M Department of Aerospace Engineering. “If you put your hand on top of your heart, you can feel these vibrations all over your torso.”
The researchers haven't created a prototype yet, but they have designed and run simulations demonstrating the viability of this concept. A hundredth-of-aninch thin slice of a special piezoelectric ceramic material would essentially catch heartbeat vibrations and briefly expand in response. Piezoelectric materials can convert mechanical stress (which causes them to expand) into an electric voltage. Karami and his colleague Daniel Inman, chair of Aerospace Engineering at U-M, have engineered the ceramic layer to a shape that is optimal for harvesting vibrations across a broad range of frequencies. They also incorporated magnets, whose additional force field can drastically boost the electrical signal that results from the vibrations.
Researchers anticipate that the new device could generate 10 microwatts of power — about eight times the amount of power a pacemaker requires to operate. It also performs at heart rates from 7 to 700 beats per minute — well below and above the normal range.