Part man, part machine, the first mechanical heart heralds a new cybernetic future

By | Science & Technology
Image courtesy of Carmat

The heart is a tireless organ working perpetually to pump and fuel the body, every few seconds the heart muscles contract and relax. With such an active life this organ is usually one of the first to slow down in old age, whether its biological disrepair or simply a genetic predisposition.

Sometimes the heart ceases to function whilst the rest of the body and organs are fairly healthy, making these sorts of conditions highly treatable, as long as an adequate replacement can be found. Yet as you can imagine a new heart is a rare and a desirable commodity, only to become available when a donor reaches the end of their own life. Though great strides in surgical techniques have been mastered and many skilled surgeons could successfully replace a patients heart, availability of replacements limit who and how many can be helped and saved.

With cloned, lab-grown tissue still around the corner, a supply of healthy substitute hearts need to be found to accommodate the ever growing indiscriminate transplant list of people unlucky enough to acquire a life limiting coronary ailment. Although, an alternative is available, what if a new heart could be sourced from other than person, or even a biological technique of laboratory grown tissue; a machine could be the solution many urgently need. The main function the heart itself is machine like in nature, essentially performing a simple repetitive motion with only minor variations within its speed, so it seem smart to use a mechanical replacement made to order.

The first mechanical replacement called the Carmat was recently “installed” into a 75 year old patient in France, a country famous for revolution now revolutionising what essentially is cyborg technology. Carried out at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital in Paris just prior to Christmas, the procedure took surgeons ten hours to complete and all eyes have been on his recovery ever since. Though the surgery was completed perfectly, the amalgamation of man and machine is still a new territory the world over. ith fingers crossed these first brave steps will be rewarded with success. The human body is full of surprises and though assumed and planned reactions to this new technology was extensively researched and explored; real life always adds another unpredicted dynamic. However, as it stands recovery is looking promising so far and the worlds first artificial heart is delivering all that was expected.

Artificial heart technology has been explored prior to Carmat, yet they are cumbersome, and afford little autonomy and even movement to patients. These systems require users to become fundamentally care dependant, quite often restricting them to a hospital bed. In fact, these sort of devices essentially act like a life support system to people lower down on the transplant list with hearts unappreciative of this lengthy queue like system. The Carmat gives autonomy back to patients waiting in this queue and also according to inventor and pioneer surgeon Alain Carpentier this system reduces the chance of clotting. Clotting can be a real issue for people using these types of machines, requiring blood thinners and all sorts of other medication and time consuming care to regulate and control.

The Carmat is the first unit to fully act like the heart in every facet, including the ability to power itself. With such a previous reliance upon sizeable machines and even a mains power one would expect this model to show limitations within power and longevity with such a reduction in its size. However, cyborg mechanical heart users can use the Carmat for five years before another suitable replacement is required. This means five more years in that ever so important transplant list or just simply five more years to someone who without their artificial alternative would be bed bound or unable to survive. Whilst survival is the main focus, this new mechanical heart allows a patient to resume their everyday life even allowing them to go back work, which offers an economic freedom that such long term illness take away. Work and money may seem like a shallow aspect to focus upon, yet it does raise an economic benefit by allowing the unhealthy to provide for themselves, their family and to pay taxes. Further more, patients can rest and heal in peace knowing there future is secure, uninhibited by their condition.

The Carmat just like the real deal is packed with sensors and microprocessors allowing it to perform self-regulating actions and responding to the dynamic cardiac requirements of daily life. This does require a lot of technology to squeezed into a compact device, making it slightly heavier than a regular heart weighing in at two pounds, one and a half pounds heavier than the norm. Although,  the first patient to receive the Carmat will be happy to write off this increase as a little extra Christmas weight. Especially when it will see him into the new year and hopefully many more.

With the success of the Carmat artificial heart, how much longer will transplants be our main option for heart and possibly other organ replacements?

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