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An Artificial Heart Capable of Replacing the Real Heart?

All this week our heart series will bring you the latest developments in heart health. Health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay is here to tell us about the state-of-the-art artificial heart.

An estimated 100,000 people every year reach the bitter end of heart disease. Their hearts simply stop working. Right now the only hope for those people is a heart transplant, but unfortunately there are only about 2,000 of those available every year. Now testing will soon begin of a new implantable, battery-operated artificial heart that may someday provide a complete replacement for a real heart.

The artificial heart contains a small motor that pumps blood through two chambers, much like a real heart. The device is designed to be implanted in the chest along with a rechargeable battery that works for up to 30 minutes. It's all completely contained within the body with no break in the skin. An external power source is worn on a belt outside the body. It is able to transmit electricity through the skin to recharge the battery.

There have been attempts to test an artificial heart before, but unfortunately it didn't work. The first attempt was 18 years ago when the bulky Jarvik Seven heart was put into a patient who died a few months later. The problem was that the Jarvik Seven was powered by a large external pump that powered the heart through air tubes that ran into the body. This led to infection, and there were other complications like strokes caused by blood clots from the device.

There are other mechanical alternatives to help a failing heart. Although the original artificial heart failed, the technology was developed and led to the development of similar heart assist pumps that are implanted to help a patient survive while waiting for a heart transplant.

These devices are known as VADs or L-VADs, which stands for left ventricular assist devices. They don't replace the entire heart, just the function of the left ventricle of the heart, which provides the strongest pumping action in the heart. Technology has improved these devices to the point where even though the wiring still needs to penetrate the skin, people can walk around with the motors and batteries instead of being tethered to a huge pump.

These heart assist devices are designed to be temporary, and they actually have a much wider use for people whose condition is not so bad that they will die immediately without a replacement heart.

The technology used in these devices is also being constantly refined. A couple of much smaller devices are currently being tested which can also be fine-tuned to speed up or slow down as a person becomes more active and needs more blood pumped.

Depending on the severity of the heart disease, people routinely live for many months, even years without a heart transplant with one of these devices. A few have even improved so much that they can have the device removed without a transplant. The theory is that the heart, like any muscle, an recover its strength if you give it a rest.

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