Utahns blaze path in bionic body parts

Published: Sunday, Nov. 23 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

Kenny Whitten has Utah-made artificial forearms and hands, so there's no need to worry about him getting stung by the bee that he's holding.

Motion Control

Kenny Whitten can run a bulldozer and a backhoe. He cares for the cows on his land in Duncan, Okla., and when he has spare time, he likes to go fishing, hunting and skiing.

He's a good carpenter, a hard worker, a dedicated dad and grandpa.

Sometimes he seems like Superman. He can pluck a bee from the air and squish it without wincing. His hands are unbelievably strong.

But he can't tuck in his own shirt. It clings to him and comes right back out of the waistband of his jeans.

His left arm is artificial from above the elbow, the right from just below, the result of a serious electrical accident when he was working for a power company. He had climbed a pole and was helping move a line when a short a mile away sent a fireball down that line to him. He was 26, father of three very young children.

He comes from the Midwest, but his arms came from Utah, part of the state's long history of innovation in the field of bionics, man-made replacements for body parts that have failed.

Think artificial arm. Artificial heart. Artificial vision. Then think beyond that. Utah researchers have been designing, redesigning, perfecting and improving artificial body parts for decades. And they plan to do it until there's nothing left to do.

Utah has been home to bioengineering efforts dating back to the 1950s. And no single institution has been more involved than the University of Utah, which has put its imprint on much of the work being done worldwide, working closely with scientists both locally and around the globe.

Some of the work has already improved lives. In other cases, it's just beginning to hold real promise.

The beat goes on

Four years ago, Reid Clark was dying of heart failure. One of the founders of Novell, the once active, adventurous man had been grounded by his failing heart.

Dr. James W. Long implanted a Thoratec HeartMate left ventricular assist device (LVAD) as part of a clinical trial to see if a patient like Clark, too old to be eligible for a human heart transplant, could survive instead with the LVAD. Younger patients were already using it with the Food and Drug Administration's approval as a bridge to transplant.

The LVAD takes over the pumping function of the heart's left ventricle. It's implanted in the abdomen and connected to the heart, powered by a portable external battery carried in a fanny pack.

A little girl, Mikayla George, 10, of Herriman, spent six weeks on a biventricular assist device before receiving a heart transplant. The device itself is the equivalent of a total artificial heart. Its two small pumps pump at different rates to accommodate the needs of the two ventricles.

The devices are both similar and different. And if you traced back the innovation that created them, you'd find they both had some roots in the artificial organ for which Utah is most famous, the artificial heart, implanted in Seattle dentist Barney Clark in 1982.

The entire world watched, and you'd have had to live on the moon not to have heard of the University of Utah, where the technology was developed, or University Hospital, where the operation took place. It was a stunning medical first.

Barney Clark lived 112 days. Other hearts have been developed since the Jarvik 7 and, indeed, there were a number of lesser-known versions before the Jarvik-7. It was tradition that the person making significant design improvements or changes place his name on the device. Dr. Robert Jarvik, whose name adorned the artificial heart placed in Barney Clark's chest, left Utah not long after and has gone on to different heart designs.

Jarvik and other U. researchers designed the heart in the artificial organ program, led by another pioneer in salvaging body parts. Dr. Willem J. Kolff invented the first dialysis machine in Holland during World War II.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere