Washington's decision to drop federal support of research to develop a completely artificial human heart is a blow to the University of Utah, the pioneer in the field. But it also is a premature abandonment of an area of science that has shown great promise.
The National Institutes of Health have $2.7 million in artificial heart research grants in effect this year, but that will be the last federal money for this purpose. Since 1964, the U.S. has spent more than $239 million on the project.Instead of backing an implantable artificial heart, federal support will now be concentrated on developing a small pump that can assist, rather than replace, a faulty human heart.
Certainly, there is a need for such "single ventricle" devices, and the U. of U. has an important role to play in this work, but the need for a fully implantable artificial heart is still enormous.
In the U.S., about 1,500 heart transplants are done each year, but as many as 30,000 people a year need a heart replacement. Giving up on the artificial heart means such people have no hope for rescue.
Clearly, the federal government must be selective about what it does with its medical dollars, particularly when the budget is swamped in red ink and programs must be slashed. Yet the few million dollars needed to keep artificial heart research going is hardly enough to make any difference in the federal budget - and the potential benefit is huge.
Complaints that the artificial heart implant program has seen all the patients die, and that basic problems still exist, are perfectly true. But some people have expected too much, too soon.
The world's first artificial heart implant was only done in December 1982, with Dr. Barney Clark the patient at the U. of U. That's slightly more than six years - hardly enough time to justify abandoning a new technology that is working on the frontiers of science. Eight artificial hearts have been implanted in all, the latest ones merely serving as a "bridge" until a donated human heart could be found.
Much already has been gained in the research, including new biocompatible materials and new understanding of tissue rejection - both of benefit to other areas of medicine.
Yes, there are problems with the artificial heart. It seems to lead to blood clots and stroke in early patients. It is too large and is run by an outside power source. Patients may be kept alive for a year or so, but the quality of life is minimal.
Yet the artificial heart is only a first-generation piece of technology. A second-generation series of devices, improved, smaller, self-contained implants, are in the development stage. That is the work that will be hurt by the halt in funding.
It's as if the Wright brothers had stopped work on their airplane in 1909, six years after their first flight, because they couldn't get up to supersonic speed.