a peek at the shape of organs to come
The artificial hearts of tomorrow might replace the familiar beat of the heart with a steady hum. And millions might live longer thanks to that innovation.
Quick, how do you tell if someone is alive? Either check for a pulse or if the person is still breathing. But there seems to be a very, very serious possibility that checking one’s pulse wouldn’t tell you anything because a lot of perfectly normal and seemingly healthy humans will walk around without a heartbeat thanks to an artificial heart which does away with a pulse, reduces wear and tear to a bear minimum, and was designed not as an experimental, last resort bridge to an organ transplant, but as a substitute for one. By sheer accident, a duo of doctors discovered that a well-tested and long proven heart assist device could take on the job of a heart in a few extreme cases and set off to create a mechanical vital organ in which function overtakes natural form. The video below is a terrific introduction to the concept, but be warned that it features pretty graphic surgery and is definitely not for the squeamish, the faint of heart, or those whose knees get wobbly at the sight of blood…
Also, make sure to read the Pop Sci feature story on the subject which gives an even more detailed account of the doctors behind the research and the questions they had to answer along the way. One of the important things to note is that their idea may not seem all that extreme or groundbreaking when we get into the details, just a combination of devices that have been used for decades with great success. But what makes it such a major accomplishment is that no one seemed to have thought of creating a no-beat artificial heart because of the laser-like focus on the fact that our own heart beats and therefore, that beat must be important to the body at large. In reality, the heart seems to beat only to take in the nutrients it needs to keep beating and as long as there’s a steady flow of blood to the rest of the organs, we’re no worse off for it. And that’s what a breakthrough is really all about. Realizing that we can try something seemingly too simple to work just to see what happens and find that the conventional wisdom is wrong via the scientific method. Even more importantly, this story is a great example of how failure can be beneficial as the failure to treat two patients lead to an artificial organ that could save millions of people suffering from organ failure or those who would otherwise die in the OR.