A French company called Carmat has developed a new artificial heart that may be a significant improvement over current models. Current models of artificial hearts tend to cause blood to clot, because blood is in direct contact with their metal or plastic inner surfaces. In the Carmat heart, all surfaces of the heart in direct contact with blood are lined with tissue derived from the pericardial sac of cows. The heart is a sophisticated pumping device controlled by sensors, microelectronics and software. It is powered by external batteries, making regular battery changes feasible. Testing of the heart in human patients is likely to begin in several European countries as early as this year.
Artificial hearts have entered the clinical testing phase before, only to prove disappointing later. The big stumbling block has been the tendency of all previous artificial hearts to cause blood to clot. Achieving a high long-term success rate in human patients has proven frustratingly elusive. Current artificial hearts are generally used only to keep the patient alive until a proper human donor heart is available.
It’ll be years before we know whether the Carmat heart will be the first implantable artificial heart that can be used successfully for the long term. We’ll be watching this one closely.