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Self-contained Artificial Heart: A Triumph of Medicine or Marketing?

It's a medical first--a patient at the brink of death gets a revolutionary new mechanical heart.

The fully implantable, battery-powered mechanical heart is pumping away tonight in the chest of its first human recipient. It can be recharged right through the skin--without any wires outside the body.

It is the latest development in the search for a long-term, self-contained artificial heart. But the medical and ethical controversy over this one is already here.

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod has details.

It's clear tonight that a Louisville, Kentucky hospital is home to a triumph. Still unclear is whether it's one of medicine or marketing.

For the first time ever, doctors have removed a diseased, failing heart in a dying patient and replaced it with a fully self-contained, battery-powered artificial heart.

"The device itself is by far and away the most sophisticated medical device ever invented, says Dr. Laman Gray.

It's called the Abiocor, a 2-pound device the size of a grapefruit that pumps 2 gallons of blood a minute and beats 100,000 times a day. No wires or tubes protrude from the body to a power source.

"This is a rescue device for people who are near imminent death," says Dr. Howard Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute.

Until now, this latest artificial heart had been tested only on cows. The human trials will be conducted on patients with less than 1 month to live and no hope of transplant. The initial goal is modest: Double the patient's life span to 60 days.

"Every single one of these patients is going to die on the Abiocor--some will live longer, some will live less--but they all will die," says Dr. Robert Jarvik. "The Abiocor is being seen as some sort of symbolically important thing, which it really isn't."

Dr. Robert Jarvik pioneered an earlier artificial heart--the one that kept a man named Barney Clark alive for 112 days in 1982 and '83. Now Jarvik says that approach--and Abiocor's--is obsolete compared to new devices, including his own, that help sick hearts pump blood.

"Instead of replacing hearts, we should be treating them earlier before they deteriorate to the extent that they need replacement, and this is where the future lies," says Jarvik.

Whether this new mechanical heart is an evolution, a revolution, or nothing at all, remains to be seen. But anything that eases strain on the transplant system will be welcome. Last year, 4,200 Americans were on the list for donor hearts. Just about half got them.
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