The University of Utah's artificial heart program was dealt a stunning blow Friday when the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute announced it could not guarantee continued funding to the university to develop a self-contained artificial heart.

Institute officials said they had awarded the U. 51/2-year contract in 1987 to develop the device. But now they expect funding - estimated at $1 million a year for the U. - for the remainder of the contract period will be unavailable.U. Medical Center spokesman John Dwan said he believes the figure is closer to $6.7 million over the five years.

While it will hurt, the funding loss won't kill the artificial heart program, Dwan said. The program is funded from several sources.

"Nevertheless, this is a serious blow to the program," he said.

"We have not been officially notified of the funding termination, but we have been notified unofficially and we believe the cuts, which affect not only our program but three others, has been brought about by fears that the federal government will cut its funding to the institute."

Dwan said most of the funding for the artificial heart program at the U. is from the federal government.

The three other institutions that will lose $1 million a year in funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute are ABIOMED, Inc., of Danvers, Mass., the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania State University in Hershey, Pa.

Dwan said the U. has planned and built laboratories and has hired people to work in them on the basis of the institute's contract and the dissolution of the contract will mean a serious disruption in the progress of the artificial heart program in Utah. He said the contract termination will probably come at the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30.

All four groups are developing battery-operated, totally implantable electrical devices designed to be less bulky and less prone to infections than artificial hearts that have been used in humans so far.

The artificial hearts that have been implanted in humans have been powered by air pumps through tubes protruding through the chest, and have been plagued by blood clots and infections.

None of the totally implantable, battery-operated hearts have been used on humans yet, but tests on animals have been promising, Pierce said.

Lederman said about 35,000 Americans die every year because there are not enough natural hearts available for transplantation. These patients would benefit from a reliable artificial heart, he said.