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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – For three weeks, a mechanical heart has performed up to expectations inside the chest of its first human recipient, his surgeons say.

But the prognosis is less clear for the AbioCor artificial heart itself – doctors don’t know if it will ever become a common option for people whose own hearts are failing.

“It’s like asking Neil Armstrong: ’Are you guys going to Mars next?’Ý” said Dr. Robert Dowling, who implanted the AbioCor in a seriously ill man a seven-hour surgery July 2 at Jewish Hospital. “Well, I don’t know about that. We’re going to go to the moon a couple times first.”

The first implants of the metal and plastic pump are experimental and restricted to the sickest patients, people who have little hope for survival and no other treatment choices.

But Dowling hopes the artificial heart might someday become an option in treating chronic heart disease.

“It’s our final goal to have a device that you can pull off the shelf that’s a reasonable alternative to transplant, or an option for people who can’t have a transplant,” Dowling said in an interview.

The softball-sized pump is manufactured by Abiomed Inc. of Danvers, Mass. An external power pack transmits electricity through the skin, so unlike previous artificial hearts the AbioCor doesn’t need wires or compressed air tubes sticking out of the chest. A small, rechargeable internal battery can keep it running for 30 minutes, long enough to let a patient take a shower.

The device has impressed even doctors who specialize in repairing human hearts.

“It has caught the imagination of patients and the public,” said Dr. David Faxon, chief of cardiology at the University of Chicago. “It’s mind-boggling. I think it’s extremely exciting.”

However, doctors say it is only a first step.

“What we need is data to support going from one phase to the next, and right now we don’t have any data,” said Dr. John Watson of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

The identity of the first patient to receive an AbioCor heart remains a secret. The man is in his 50s, and suffers from chronic kidney failure, diabetes and a history of heart problems. He was ineligible for a heart transplant because of his poor condition.

His condition remains critical but stable, and he will likely remain hospitalized for at least another couple of months, Dowling said.

As for the AbioCor itself, Watson said three factors will determine whether it evolves from experimental device into a widespread alternative to donor hearts: safety, quality of life benefits and cost.

“If it can match heart transplantation as far as safety and long-term outcome for the patient, then it can become an alternative,” said Faxon, president of the American Heart Association.

Last year, only about half of the 4,200 Americans on a waiting list for donor hearts received them. Most of the rest died.

Faxon said the AbioCor is a step forward in developing a permanent, manmade replacement to a worn out human heart.

But he said he expects the first experimental surgeries will show the need for refinements in the AbioCor, or some other device that might ultimately emerge.

Dowling agreed that changes likely will be needed.

“Just like the first pacemakers, the first (ventricular) assist devices or the first IV catheters, there are going to be things that we find out over time to tweak to make it better,” Dowling said.

“But right now, I can honestly say there isn’t anything that we would have done different in terms of designing the device.”

onthenet

Jewish Hospital: http://www.jhhs.org

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