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Building a better artificial heart

Volunteer leaders, alumni, and grateful patients are the driving force behind the Hopkins Heart Initiative, which is uniting doctors, engineers, and systems analysts to create the world's first permanent, man-made heart replacement
Posted September 8, 2016
Duke Cameron, the James T. Dresher Sr. Professor and Chief of Cardiac Surgery IMAGES: Mike Morgan Duke Cameron, the James T. Dresher Sr. Professor and Chief of Cardiac Surgery IMAGES: Mike Morgan

Artificial hearts haven't changed much in their 30-plus years of clinical use. They're bulky, can cause blood clots and infections, and often interfere with basic activities, like bathing. So when Chris Helmrath learned that Duke Cameron — the James T. Dresher, Sr. Professor and Chief of Cardiac Surgery who saved his life via two open-heart operations — was leading the charge to build a better option, he eagerly offered his support.

"We haven't accomplished anything in over 30 years to eradicate heart disease or create solutions for people whose hearts are so damaged that, without a transplant, they would die. Duke is trying to develop an alternative that will provide solutions for so many patients," Helmrath says of Cameron, the director of the Dana and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli Center for Aortic Diseases at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Helmrath, along with fellow Cardiovascular Advisory Board member Michael Brodsky, and F. Suzanne Jenniches, MS (Engr '79), a Whiting School of Engineering National Advisory Council member, are leading the charge as donors and advocates for the Hopkins Heart Initiative, a collaboration among doctors, engineers, and system analysts.

The initiative, launched in 2013 by the School of Medicine, Whiting School of Engineering, and Applied Physics Laboratory, aims to design and create an artificial heart that is fully compatible with the human body and avoids the issues related to external power sources by 2023.

"People can contribute modest amounts to this initiative, and by the multiplying of everybody's contributions, they can be part of making a difference in the quality of life for so many," says Jenniches, who has lost several relatives to heart disease. "It's a wonderful project to invest in."

Postdoctoral fellow Jacopo Biasetti, left, and Joe Katz, the Whiting School of Engineering's William F. Ward Sr. Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering

"We have so much expertise under one umbrella"

The Hopkins Heart Initiative seeks to overcome two major issues threatening the feasibility and longevity of current artificial hearts: biocompatibility and power.

Jacopo Biasetti, a mechanical engineering postdoctoral fellow whose position has been funded largely through donations to the initiative, has focused on solving the first challenge.

Artificial hearts pump blood at high speeds, causing blood damage and clotting that scientists have struggled to slow down. Biasetti has developed a damage-detection technique and is applying it in a series of model pumps to better calibrate similar systems for human use. At the same time, his colleagues in the School of Medicine are exploring the construction of heart muscle from stem cells, which should address the biocompatibility issues caused by artificial hearts built from synthetic materials.

"What makes me confident is that because we're at Hopkins, we have so much expertise under one umbrella," Biasetti says. "We know what we want to do, we have the right people, and we have ideas that look promising."

Joseph Katz, the Whiting School's William F. Ward Sr. Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is addressing the artificial heart's power-source conundrum. Current models require cumbersome cables that protrude from the body, making something as mundane as a daily shower a complicated task.

Katz has identified a new source: alpha radiation. It's a nuclear energy so powerful and long-lasting NASA has used it for deep-space missions. Katz theorizes the power source, which requires only a thin shell of protection and no external wires, can be adapted for human use. But he'll need help to test that hypothesis — in the form of more researchers like Biasetti.

"It's not the kind of technology I can buy off the shelf. We need people, first of all, and then resources," says Katz, the co-director of the Hopkins Center for Environmental and Applied Fluid Mechanics

A breakthrough powered by philanthropy

For Cameron, the challenge to develop a fully compatible artificial heart isn't all that different from the challenge of putting a man on the moon in the mid-twentieth century — and the financial obstacles to overcome are equally daunting.

"Kennedy threw down the gauntlet, but there were a lot of people who had to be sold on the idea. It's not enough for us to be excited [about the artificial heart]; we have to instill the excitement in everybody else," Cameron said in a 2015 interview with Baltimore magazine.

Fortunately, Cameron and the Hopkins Heart Initiative team have a small army already assembled in Helmrath, Jenniches, and Brodsky, who seek not only to support the project with their own funds, but to encourage others to join them. 

"The Hopkins Heart Initiative is so innovative and so cutting-edge, in reality, it could change the course of history," Brodsky says. "It's exciting to be just a small part of it."

To learn how you can support the Hopkins Heart Initiative, please contact Megan Howie, of the Whiting School of Engineering, and Shannon Wollman, of the Heart and Vascular Institute.