University of Utah officials, disappointed over the federal government's decision to slash funding for a totally implantable artificial heart, expressed confidence Friday that Utah will continue to lead the nation in heart research.

"It's important for everyone to realize that because of the work done at the University of Utah for more than two decades, we have the people-resources available to move in whatever direction the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute thinks it should go," said John Dwan, spokesman for the U. Health Sciences Center.At the U. in 1982, the world's first permanent artificial heart was implanted into the chest of Seattle dentist Barney Clark. Clark died in March 1983, and Dr. William DeVries, the only physician who has federal approval to implant the device, left Utah to pursue his specialty at the Humana-Audubon Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

However, research on the Utah 100 Heart, another pneumatically driven artificial heart, has continued at the U. In fact, scientists predicted that as early as next fall, the Utah 100 could be used as a temporary blood pump for those awaiting a human organ transplant.

Those plans may be delayed by the federal cuts.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute spokesman Dr. Claude Lenfant announced Thursday the decision to cut off millions of dollars for research on artificial hearts.

In January, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, in the National Institutes of Health, granted $5,592,000 to the U.'s Institute for Biomedical Engineering to develop a totally implantable, electrically powered artificial heart - one of the largest federal contracts ever awarded to the U.

Additionally, the Utah Centers of Excellence program awarded matching funds of $500,000 and the university awarded $600,000 to produce the device by 1992.

Dwan said U. officials do not know yet how the matching funds will be affected by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's final decision. However, another $2.4 million grant from the institute, awarded in March, will not be affected.

"We have other funding sources which are ongoing and even though this is a major setback, we expect to continue to make progress in the area," said Dr. Greg Burns, director of the biomedical division at the U.'s Division of Artificial Organs. "The program is still viable and active at the U."

Lenfant said the 5 1/2-year research grants to four contractors - a total of $22.4 million - were being withdrawn so research could focus on patient trials of an artificial device that can assist or substitute for the human heart's left ventricle.

According to Dwan, Utah researchers aren't discouraged by that decision.

"We have a critical intellectual mass at the university in the field of cardiology and artificial organs," he said. "We have people who are in the forefront now in the area of ventricular assist devices, and there is probably no institution further advanced than the U. in the area of biomedical materials."

Dwan said the U. cardiology department, working on heart transplants and in the field of cardioimmunology, is also in the forefront.

A physician who has been critical of the significant amount of money being spent on artificial heart projects, lauded the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute decision.

"I applaud the effort in assisting survival until we can see that man can survive on his own," said Dr. Robert G. Wilson, referring to the institute's new emphasis on ventricular assist devices. "But I believe that the (National Institutes of Health) also realized that should a totally artificial heart be developed that would not be rejected, that would be a success, the downstream consequences of that would be more than even this nation could afford."

Wilson, a former president of the Utah Medical Association who is now in private practice in Prescott, Ariz., said he also thinks "society has begun to realize that humans are after all finite, and perhaps more money should be spent in basic research for prevention rather than in the prolongation for a few years of the lives of the very ill."

But Dwan doesn't believe the national institute's decision puts an end to artificial heart research. "We at the university are confident that downstream the need for an artificial heart will reemerge."