The same technology that powers the Space Shuttle into orbit may now help children, thanks to a tiny heart pump recently approved for implantation in young, critically ill patients.
The heart pump helps patients who need a new heart survive until a donor heart is available. It is the first such device approved for use in kids. It earned Food and Drug Administration approval earlier this year for use in children between the ages of five and 16 and was recently implanted for the first time in a child.
Not much larger than a penlight battery, the pump is the result of two decades of NASA collaboration with famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. The collaboration began by chance when a NASA engineer, the late David Saucier, an expert in rocket engine fuel pumps, became DeBakey's patient. After recovering from heart surgery, Saucier began discussions with a team of physicians at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine on how the pump that fuels the Shuttle might be the key to an innovative, life-saving device. The effort grew to involve several NASA propulsion engineers as the team strove to miniaturize the pumping technology used in the desk-sized Space Shuttle main engine turbopumps.
"I came to NASA in the early 1960s as we worked to land men on the moon, and I never dreamed I would also become part of an effort that could help save people's lives," said Bernard Rosenbaum, a NASA propulsion engineer at Johnson Space Center who worked with the group. "We were energized and excited to do whatever it took to make it work," he added.
The team worked for years to solve problems, such as eliminating the blood clotting experienced with other heart pumps.
"NASA had the vision to understand the value of the pump and championed the successful transfer of the technology to make it a reality. Without NASA's help, the pump would not exist," said Dallas Anderson, president and chief executive of MicroMed Technology, Inc., that manufactures the pump.
The pump weighs less than four ounces and is about the size of a pink-beveled eraser, small enough to fit a child. The pump's three main components minimize blood-flow turbulence, guide direction and drive constant outflow. The only moving part is a single-rotating impeller that propels blood in a continuous flow.
"The heart pump is a perfect blend of NASA engineering and medicine," Rosenbaum said. "The same laws of physics that apply to building and flying a spacecraft apply to building and operating a heart pump," he added.
DeBakey noted that NASA's exploration goals guide its research achievements.
"NASA is engaged in very active research," DeBakey said. "It has as its goal to explore space. But to do so, you've got to do all kinds of research -- biological research, physical research and so on. So it's really a very, very intensive research organization. And anytime you have any type of intensive research organization or activity going on, new knowledge is going to flow from it."
In 1996, NASA granted exclusive rights under its patents for the mechanical left-ventricular assist device (LVAD), now called the MicroMed-DeBakey VAD, to Houston-based MicroMed. The heart assist pump has been implanted in about 240 adult patients, including 176 people involved in European trials that began in 1998. U.S. trials began in 2000 and are still under way to reach a planned total of 180 implants in this country. Heart specialists have seen patients live with the pump for as long as two years before receiving a donor heart. The pump also has been credited with allowing enough time for weakened hearts to repair themselves.
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