WORLD> Europe
French doctor unveils artificial heart
Updated: 2008-10-28 10:19

A French doctor has unveiled what he described as the world's first fully implantable artificial heart.

French heart transplant specialist Alain Carpentier presents a prototype of the world's first fully implantable artificial heart. [Agencies] 

Three decades after the world's first human heart transplant, this revolutionary life-size mixture of animal tissue, titanium and missile technology that its inventor says perfectly replicates the human organ could save the lives of thousands of heart patients, many of whom die while waiting for a heart donation.

Pumping and rippling in an eerily lifelike way, the new heart is covered in specially treated tissue to avoid rejection by the body's immune system and in particular the formation of blood clots.

Thanks to the latest electronic sensor technology used in guided missiles, the heart can also respond instantly to changes in blood pressure and flow and adapt the heart beat rate accordingly.

"If you showed the electrocardiogram to a cardiologist he would say 'that's a human heart.' Well no, it isn't: it's a prosthesis," said its creator, Prof Alain Carpentier, head of research on cardiac grafts and prostheses at Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris.

Prof Carpentier has been working in the utmost secrecy on the project for 15 years in conjunction with engineers from the Franco-German defence and aerospace company EADS.

While there are other rival laboratories working on artificial hearts in America, Japan and South Korea, the French say their design is superior.

In particular, Prof Carpentier used his expertise as a world authority in artificial heart valves to overcome the problem of blood clots - the main stumbling block in other attempts to build an artificial heart. He did this by using specially sterilised "bioprosthetic" pig cartilage and by replicating the exact same blood flow - or hemodynamics - of the human heart that reduce blood clot risks.

"The aim of this heart is to allow patients to go from an impossible life where they can do just a few steps from their bed to an armchair to a normal social life. They will even be able to run - although naturally not a marathon," he said.

Weighing around a kilo, the only external part of the man-made organ is its battery which has a five-hour charge life.

Prof Carpentier said the new heart was necessary given the chronic shortage of heart donors and growing heart patient waiting lists. "I couldn't stand seeing young, active people dying aged 40 from massive heart attacks," he said.

Heart disease is among the world's biggest killers, claiming 17 million lives per year.

About 55 million euros has been spent creating the prototype. The groundbreaking organ has already been successfully implanted in calves although most tests have been done via computer simulation.

"The artificial heart is ready and now needs to be industrially made," said Prof Carpentier, who added that none of its parts had shown any sign of "wearing out".

Assuming French medical authorities give the go-ahead, it will be tested on around 20 volunteer heart patients within the next two and a half years.

The heart will be built by Carmat, a biomedical subsidiary of EADS, with funding from Oseo, the French state bank that supports innovative companies, as well as from venture capitalists.