The Artificial Heart: A Vessel to the Future

by Wasan Rafat, Columnist

In the United States alone, over 107,000 people are waiting for essential organ transplants at the mercy of the unpredictable U.S. organ donation system. When deciding who should receive transplants, doctors prioritize healthier patients because of their increased likelihood of survival. Thus, the majority of donor recipients have to wait several strenuous years for a transplant — time that most do not have.

According to the Health Resources and Service Administration, 20 lives are lost every single day on the organ transplant waiting list. Scientists have been trying to combat this harsh reality for decades, and they might have cracked the code: artificial organs.

Artificial organs are human-made devices that are installed as replacements to real organs. By recreating the lifeline that so many need with organ reengineering, these substitutes could one day eradicate transplant shortages. 

The heart facilitates the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to cells, eliminating gaseous wastes like carbon dioxide from the body. Artificial hearts are especially critical for patients who suffer from heart failure because they replicate the cardiac organ’s jobs until the patient receives a permanent organ of their own. Surgically implanted in the body, the artificial heart acts as a pump that transports blood through the heart’s major artery, the aorta, to the cells of the body.

Since 1969, 13 different artificial heart designs have been created and used on patients. Despite these developments, the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH) was the only version to be commercially approved. Its design is similar to a human heart, equipped with two ventricles and four valves, but it also comes with an external machine known as a driver, which imitates the heart’s pumping effect to transport blood around the body. The TAH can pump up to nine and a half liters per minute, and this stable blood flow ensures the recovery of other organs in the body. Whether a patient is a youth or a senior citizen, the TAH can support their recovery and ensure that they remain a transplant contender. However, it is not a permanent solution; while some have survived on the TAH for more than four and a half years, the average patient spends around 130 days on it. In other words, the artificial heart is intended to be a short-term “bridge to transplant” device that replaces a failing heart until patients receive a donation.

Nowhere is this concept more evident than with the experience of Nemah Kahala. Kahala, a mother of five, was diagnosed with restrictive heart muscle disease. Her condition was too advanced for traditional solutions such as surgery or mechanical assisting devices. Had it not been for the artificial heart, Kahala would not have lived to receive a transplant. In fact, she would not have made it onto the waiting list to begin with. But two weeks after her TAH heart surgery, Kahala was healthy enough to be placed on the list. One week later, she was given a donor heart.

In a world where the leading cause of death is heart disease, which claims an annual 600,000 lives globally, the artificial heart is a novel advancement. With the promising experiences of so many artificial heart patients, it is clear that we are pumping science to a future where no one will have to die on a waiting list.