Essential federal funding that keeps the University of Utah's artificial heart program beating could be rescinded because of mounting political pressure put on the government to halt the AIDS epidemic, some U. scientists believe.

The university learned a few days ago that the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in the National Institutes of Health could not guarantee continued funding to the U. to develop a self-contained artificial heart.As a result, the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering stands to lose a five-year contract and a $5,592,000 grant - one of the largest contracts ever awarded to the U. - to develop a totally implantable, electrically powered artificial heart.

However, Dr. Don B. Olsen, principal investigator and director of the Division of Artificial Organs housed in the institute, said Saturday, "We are somewhat optimistic that we will be able to get the program reinstated."

Olsen was informed of the possible funding cut while attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Artificial Implantable Organs in Reno, Nev.

Dr. John Watson, head of National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's devices and technology branch, stunned principal investigators with the news. The three other institutions that could lose $1 million a year in funding from the institute are ABIOMED Inc., Danvers, Mass.; the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio; and Pennsylvania State University, Hershey, Pa.

"It was quite a blow," Olsen said. "However, as of this time we still have not received a complete and satisfactory explanation, other than there will be a reappropriation of NIH funds to what was termed `higher priority.' "

"We are attempting to identify where the decision was made and why the decision was made. We are aware of the tremendous political pressures to infuse additional funds to support a wide variety of research in trying to better understand the science around the AIDS virus, and the prevention of disease from AIDS," he said.

According to Olsen, the amount of money the National Institutes of Health dropped from the support of the artificial heart program amounts to only about 0.5 percent of the more than $1 billion current National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute annual budget. In comparison, the federal government just spent $17 million to send an eight-page brochure about AIDS to every American household.

While a seemingly insignificant amount to the National Institutes of Health, the funding loss could have a serious impact on the U.'s artificial organ program, because it could also affect matching funds.

In January, when the Institute for Biomedical Engineering received the multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Utah Centers of Excellence program awarded matching funds of $500,000, and the university awarded another $600,000 to pursue the project.

Those grants are also in jeopardy if the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute pulls its funding.

Olsen said the only secure support is an additional five-year, $2.4 million grant awarded to the university in March by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to continue studies on the artificial heart.

Because of that money, the Utah 100 artificial heart could be ready as early as next fall for use as a temporary blood pump for someone waiting a human organ transplant. The U.'s Institutional Review Board for Research With Human Subjects has approved use of the artificial device in people, and an application is being sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"We still believe that we will remain on that time frame," Olsen said.

In the meantime, Olsen said the Utah researchers will attempt to get the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's recent decision rescinded and the money reappropriated back into the four contracts to develop a totally implantable artificial heart.

Olsen said the U. has planned and built laboratories and hired people to work in them on the basis of the institute's contract. While the dissolution of the contract will mean a serious disruption in the progress of the artificial heart program in Utah, Olsen said U. officials are "trying to work around letting any employees go." He and his staff were meeting Saturday afternoon to discuss their options.

Unless the four contractors are successful in persuading the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to rescind its decision, the contract termination will likely come at the end of the current fiscal year, Sept. 30.