Time Machines: Artificial beats

Essential repair for the human machine.

Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets, and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills.

Jarvik-7 Artificial Heart

Hearts are a pretty important part of our biological hardware, and while our bodies are amazingly resilient, we're essentially just fragile sacks of old technology. The National Institute for Health recognized this back in the 1960s and has been supporting research in artificial heart tech ever since. In 1982, this research paid off with a breakthrough operation by Utah-based surgeon William DeVries, who successfully implanted the first permanent and totally artificial heart into a Seattle dentist who suffered from end-stage heart disease. The device was called the Jarvik-7, designed by Dr. Robert Jarvik, and as the numerical suffix indicates, it was a project long in the making.

This is the Jarvik 7 artificial heart, the same one implanted in Dr. Barney Clark in Dec. 1982 at Utah University Medical Center, shown Dec. 8, 1982.
AP Photo

The Jarvik-7's development is rooted at the University of Utah, which began building a dream team in the area of artificial organ research around 1967, when Dr. Willem Kolff, a longtime proponent of "creating bionic persons," joined the university's Division of Artificial Organs. He soon ascended to the position of director at the university's new Institute for Biomedical Engineering. It was here that Kolff dedicated a team of researchers to developing an artificial heart. Dr. Clifford Kwan-Gett, a cardiovascular surgeon, joined the group around the time of its inception and developed a set of pneumatically powered systems that laid the groundwork for the Jarvik-7 and the "Utahdrive" bedside console that powered it.

Around 1971, Kolff hired a young Jarvik as design engineer. Jarvik was fresh from NYU and armed with a master's degree in biomechanics when he joined the artificial heart team. He began as a part-time member in order to continue his studies, but by 1976, having earned his medical degree, he was able to dive wholeheartedly into the field. Using Kwan-Gett's designs as a jump-off point, and applying his skills in both engineering and medicine, Jarvik built a series of increasingly improved artificial heart models. His Jarvik-5 design proved capable of sustaining life in a calf for five months — a hefty improvement over previous attempts in which success had been measured in hours or days.

Building on these achievements and bolstered by rapidly evolving surgical techniques and synthetic fabrication, the Jarvik-7 artificial heart was born. The device was made up of sphere-shaped polyurethane cavities that pushed blood through valve openings, similar to, but visually disparate from, a real heart. The Utahdrive bedside console was attached to the heart by Silastic tubes providing electricity and pneumatics, allowing doctors to regulate the artificial heart's air pressure and maintain a pulse anywhere from 40 to 120 beats-per-minute.

After extensive review, the FDA granted approval for limited human testing in 1981, just in time to help Barney Clark, the Seattle dentist who had volunteered for the procedure in support of scientific advancement. Clark was sustained for 112 days, much longer than he had personally expected, before eventually succumbing to "circulatory collapse and secondary multi-organ system failure." All the while, the entire event had been the focus of intense media scrutiny, sparking intense debate about the state of medical research.

Human testing continued, with the Jarvik-7's success rate and patient longevity record continuing to improve, including a 1985 recipient who lived for 11 more years. In the years to come, Jarvik continued to develop artificial heart technology with a focus on maintaining original tissue rather than the total-heart replacement method. The Jarvik 2000 was the result; a miniaturized heart-assist device with a form factor that provided full mobility.

The essence of the Jarvik-7 design is still in use as a bridge-to-transplant device, but its success opened up the field to continued research and development in the medical community. Just like the Jarvik 2000, many designs now offer wearable form factors. Devices such as the AbioCor fully artificial heart can now be contained entirely inside the chest, and others like the French-made Carmat heart, propose to use sensors to react to exertion levels on the fly and regulate output accordingly.