June 12, 2000
John Ira Petty
Johnson Space Center
Employees Used Shuttle Technology to Benefit Patients on Earth
NASA/Johnson Space Center engineer David Saucier would have been proud.
Saucier, who worked on the huge turbopumps feeding propellant to the Space Shuttle’s main engines, suffered a heart attack in 1983. The following year Dr. Michael DeBakey transplanted a heart into Saucier’s chest.
During Saucier’s recovery, the two talked – about heart pumps and space technology, and how the two might be combined. The eventual result was the miniaturized ventricular-assist pump. Its first U.S. implant was announced Thursday.
A total of 32 have been implanted into patients in Europe since late 1998, with good results, DeBakey said at a press conference announcing the beginning of U.S. trials.
Six months after his transplant sixteen years ago, Saucier was back at JSC with renewed vigor and dedication and a newfound dedication to applying shuttle technology to help people with heart problems.
With fellow JSC workers Greg Aber, Jim Akkerman, Dick Bozeman, Jim Bacak and Paul Svejkovsky and with DeBakey, and Baylor College of Medicine specialists Robert Benkowski, George Damm, Dr. Kazumi Mizuguchi, Dr. George Noon and Dr. Yukihiko Nose, Saucier saw the concept move toward the reality that is helping the heart of a 31-year-old woman in Houston’s Methodist Hospital today.
"Since my own transplant, I have spent a lot of time visiting people waiting for a donor heart," Saucier said during that development phase. "Sometimes they don't make it and it's very tough to watch people struggle so valiantly and then lose the battle. I feel a real sense of urgency to come up with a practical alternative to transplant surgery."
Saucier and the others began working evenings and weekends -- on the pump’s design. In 1992, NASA began funding the project.
"The team was very dedicated," DeBakey said "and we made a certain amount of progress considering we were working part-time in all of this. I got the impression after our first meeting that we had some really good minds on this problem, and that certainly proved to be the case.”
NASA’s Ames Research Center contributed to the design of the pump that moves blood efficiently and without damage. Shuttle technology, particularly that of the liquid hydrogen pumps serving the main engines, also was applied.
"My goal is to have a permanently installed LVAD pump that can take the place of a heart transplant," Saucier said. "That's when I'll be satisfied."
The VAD, initially called the NASA/DeBakey heart pump, became even more than Saucier envisioned.
In addition to being a more permanent device to help heart patients lead a more nearly normal life, it also serves as "bridge" to transplant, or as a device that could help a patient toward recovery by helping rest a damaged heart.
The result of the efforts of Saucier, his NASA colleagues, the DeBakey team and MicroMed, is a remarkable battery-operated pump -- 2 inches long, 1 inch in diameter and weighing less than four ounces -- that seems to be an answer to the decades-long quest to develop an implantable ventricular-assist pump. It is small enough to fit into a child's chest.
The tiny device has functioned normally and to specification, said Dallas Anderson, president and CEO of MicroMed Technology Inc. of Houston, TX, the company to which NASA granted exclusive rights for the patented pump technology.
After intense competition, MicroMed was granted exclusive rights to it in 1996, the year Saucier died.
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