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15-Year-Old Boy Fitted With Robotic Heart 241

An anonymous reader writes "What do you do when a 15-year-old boy is close to death and ineligible for a heart transplant? If you're Dr. Antonio Amodeo you turn to an artificial solution and transplant a robotic heart, giving the boy another 20-25 years of life. The Italian boy in question suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which rapidly degenerates the muscles and eventually leads to death. Having such a disease renders the boy ineligible for a heart transplant, meaning almost certain death without an alternative solution. Dr. Amodeo found such an alternative in the form of a 90-gram, fully-robotic heart that took 10 hours to fit inside the boy's left ventricle. It is a permanent solution offering as much as 25 years of life and is powered by a battery worn as a belt."
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15-Year-Old Boy Fitted With Robotic Heart

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  • Such a heart was a big part of one of the worst episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation [] evar!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by XanC ( 644172 )

      Oh, I should also point out it was a big part of one of the best episodes [] evar too.

      • Don't forget about CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE []... such a lovely Hollywood gem! (I'm being a bit sarcastic but not entirely; don't expect to be blown away by some deep drama and realistic concepts; put reality aside and go in looking for a silly story with some mindless action and it's a hit! Works for me!)
        • On a side note, the movie wasn't completely ridiculous.

          The artificial heart shown in the movie is actually a real artificial heart, the AbioCor from Abiomed []. However the real artificial heart is totally internal and does not include a battery box as shown in the movie. The latest AbioCors can run on battery without recharging (done via external RF chargers) for over 4 hours.

    • That brings up another point; how come Paramount hasn't put ST:TNG up on iTunes? Everything else Trek is there

  • I must be missing something here... because they seem to be wholly serious on their usage of the term "permanent"... which would imply to me that it should be lasting a heckuva lot longer than until he's forty.
    • by magarity ( 164372 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:19PM (#33787802)

      because they seem to be wholly serious on their usage of the term "permanent"... which would imply to me that it should be lasting a heckuva lot longer than until he's forty.
      He has a form of muscular dystrophy. They can't replace all his other muscles too and he'll eventually succumb to other problems related to MD. When you're one foot inside Death's doorway at 15, a solution that keeps you alive until ~40 is pretty darn permanent.

      • Too bad we are not closer to the prosthetic body idea from Ghost in the Shell. Even if in the experimental stages, this boy might sign up for the chance at a longer life.

        • This is one of the first steps to such a device. It's pretty damn amazing. I guess the "only" thing you'd need when it comes down to it, is something that replaces the whole body, provides sugar to your brain, and links up to the brain or the top portion of the spine. I wonder how the brain would react when it can no longer control or receive information from the heart and the various chemical systems around the body, and whether those things need to be emulated to stop your brain from spazzing out..

      • by nbauman ( 624611 )

        He has a form of muscular dystrophy. They can't replace all his other muscles too and he'll eventually succumb to other problems related to MD.

        True. This is an unusual case of muscular dystrophy, because in the most common forms, Duchenne's and Becker's, they have heart muscle abnormalities, but they don't have heart failure. A bigger problem is failure of the muscles that drive the lungs, which is a common cause of death.

        Muscular dystrophy affects all the muscles in the body. It's usually due to a mutation in the dystrophin gene. Dystrophin is the protein that connects the actin protein to the muscle cell membrane []

    • by zaren ( 204877 ) <> on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:20PM (#33787808) Homepage Journal

      Yes, I believe you missed the part where the disease he has causes the muscles in his body to stop working. It's a fairly safe bet the muscles that work his lungs or digestive system... or pretty much any other part of his body... will stop working before this heart fails. Someone with this disease is "lucky" to make it to twenty.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by magarity ( 164372 )

        the disease he has
        This is a side note, but muscular dystrophy is a genetic disorder. I know a lot of people call that kind of thing a 'disease' but that term implies a virus, bacteria, or other etc external agent (even the government spraying Agent Orange) came along and caused it. That doesn't happen with MD. He was just made that way so his condition should be labeled accordingly: a disorder. As in, not ordered correctly.

        • To be more precise disease is where the body's functions are changed resulting in disruption of vital functions. But if the body was always this way nothing has changed so I could see how you might think it's not a disease. But officially MD is a disease. The definition also applied to things like heart disease, which often has a genetic cause.

          I suspect that the word "disease" has some connotations for you that don't exist for the rest of us, perhaps you should educate yourself further with a simple diction

        • A "disease" implies that the survival of an organism is reduced due to extraordinary internal conditions not related to its permanent environment. For example, mustard gas is not a disease; but bringing a mustard gassed individual into clean air might stop him from dying today, yet leave him with a lung disease due to seriously scarred lung tissue... this will reduce his ability to get oxygen when under heavy physical stress.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by vlm ( 69642 )

          I know a lot of people call that kind of thing a 'disease' but that term implies a virus, bacteria, or other etc external agent (even the government spraying Agent Orange) came along and caused it.

          Actually no. Historically "dis ease" as in lack of ease, or discomfort. Which would seem to apply to heart failure. Every modern definition applies either at one end to a unique set of symptoms, or any unique pathological condition resulting in those symptoms.

          Its like arguing that people often talk about species of insects, therefore they can't talk about species of bacteria.

        • 'disease' but that term implies a virus, bacteria, or other etc external agent

          The word comes from the 14th century [], before viruses and bacteria were known to be separate causes of sickness than genetic disorders. More importantly though, most people do seem to refer to genetic disorders as diseases. So I'd say no it doesn't.

      •     With that prognosis, it sounds like an early heart failure is the better way out. I can't imagine having a complete skeletal muscular failure, so you're stuck in bed. Respiratory failure and now you're on a machine to keep you breathing. A feeding tube because you can't swallow. Catheterized and colostomy to capture your waste when you lose control of those functions. Sometimes lucky isn't so lucky for anyone involved.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      It's a lifetime guarantee.

    • perhaps "permanent" in this case means that if this really works for 25 years, there will be nothing stopping them from just popping a new one in to extend his warranty for another 1/4c. It is the solution that could be permanent, not this particular robotic device.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      "Permanent" in this case probably means "Not Temporary" since it's not designed to be removed in a relatively short period of time. Pacemakers are "permanent" in that manner too.
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Normally, such a device will be implanted either to keep the patient alive (hopefully) long enough for a transplant to become available, or to give their own heart time to rest and recover (we now know that can happen), then it will be removed (explanted).

      By permanent they mean not to be explanted later, but to remain for the rest of his life.

      As Magarity points out, with his form of MD, one may last a lifetime.

  • by Bicx ( 1042846 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:22PM (#33787838)
    I'd freak out if my heart were powered by something strapped around my waist. The only option would be to build a bullet-proof metal suit with a built-in nuclear power supply. If I had enough energy left over, jet-powered hands and feet along with a dry-witted AI partner in my helmet would be a plus.
    • by FuckingNickName ( 1362625 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:32PM (#33787956) Journal

      How do you go through life knowing that you are relying on a muscle to beat regularly, every second or two at least, almost without interruption, for more than 2,207,520,000 seconds? Such a minute, weak mass of carbon in a soulless universe, somehow managing to keep itself together for that long... and so many things could go wrong, both within and without.

      Yet the majority, while young, neither seem nor need to give it a second thought.

    • >I'd freak out if my heart were powered by something strapped around my waist.

      Instead its a muscle powered by a complex metabolic process that requires you to eat food, get proper nutrition, etc. Oh, if you eat the wrong foods it fails early and painfully. Enjoy!

    • I'd freak out even more if I were going to die because my heart was gradually eating itself.

      Perspective, man, perspective!

    • by mr100percent ( 57156 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @05:17PM (#33788388) Homepage Journal

      "I'd freak out if my heart were powered by something strapped around my waist."

      Better hope you don't get frisked by an overzealous cop, or a rough TSA agent. There was a /. story many years ago about a guy who sued claiming they tore his "prosthetics" off.

    • The only option would be to build a bullet-proof metal suit with a built-in nuclear power supply.

      So to you, the option is to die while waiting for science-fiction to pan out? I'm glad you're that comfortable with your mortality, but it sounds to me this kid will settle for what's possible with today's cutting-edge technology.

  • by cypherpu ( 1915092 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:24PM (#33787852)
    I wish I could feel better about this, but I don't. Most of these artificial hearts require systemic anticoagulation. Otherwise, they generate clots, which can travel to the brain and create a series of strokes, ultimately killing the patient.. Systemic anticoagulation brings it's own set of serious problems (bleeding tendencies, tissue changes, etc). My best wishes for this young man and his family.
  • by Felgerkarb ( 695336 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:24PM (#33787854)
    I think the media is playing up the 'robotic' and cyborg angle a bit.

    I have only read the linked articles, but the description sounds like a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. This is a pump that helps the heart push blood, rather than replacing the heart, which is what I generally think of when people talk about artificial hearts. It sounds like the innovation here is the size, its use in a child, and the length of time they plan to use it, since it is generally used as a bridge to transplant.

    I think they are optimistic in thinking they can get 25 years, since we really haven't evolved the material science to have implantable devices for that long without provoking clot formation or scarring, but it sounds like they didn't have a lot of options here.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 04, 2010 @04:46PM (#33788114)

      I was on a LVAD for a couple weeks. Luckily, my ventricle became stable enough to get off before a transplant was needed. I have two artificial valves and an aortic graft. I was told I could only be on the LVAD for 30 days before having a transplant, and I am 31. I can't imagine an LVAD being used to sustain life for 20-25 years. Besides, the actual LVAD machine is quite large, unless they have portable ones that I am not aware of. I can't see someone leaving the hospital with one.

      • by Achra ( 846023 )
        They must have gotten a lot smaller. I don't recognize the VAD that is in the image in this article, but it's representative. There is an implantable device (the pump), which is implanted into the heart. A cable (called the Percutaneous cable) connects the pump to a controller usually worn at the waist. The controller is an embedded device. It will have some battery packs that are connected to it as well. The whole apparatus will be waterproof. You can actually go swimming with modern LVAD's, even though I'
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        They've improved a lot in a short time. They can be left in longer as well.

    • They don't have to play it up, it's entirely accurate: technically the boy is now a cyborg. Simple as that.

      In fact, people with pacemakers and artificial hips are technically cyborgs, too.

    • I agree; it sounds exactly like an LVAD. I'm similarly dubious about the long-term prospects for this particular patient with this particular device, but perhaps it will buy him enough time for improved technology to become available, whether that's a truly reliable artificial heart or, far better, gene therapy to cure the underlying muscular dystrophy.

    • I agree with everyone that it sounds like a LVAD, one caveat is this with regard to studies and mortality - historically speaking LVADs were used (and still are) and a bridge to transplant, however, they have been explored as "destination therapy". That is, giving them to people who have no real shot had a transplant. The mortality is bad, but consider these people are on their last legs of life, and 6 months, a year better than certain death. I am not familiar with their use in the pediatric popula

      • by jd ( 1658 )

        It looks like the kid got lucky - some doctors are willing to try highly experimental (and/or totally "unapproved") techniques that give the patient better odds of surviving in the medium term than doing nothing, even if it carries a higher risk of the patient dying in the short term. When you're faced with pretty-much certain death in the short term anyway, a little extra risk isn't much compared to the potential benefits.

        As for mortality, the mortality for even ideal heart transplant patients isn't great.

    • by Achra ( 846023 )
      That's what I was thinking as well, when I saw the pictures. This definitely looks like an LVAD. Normally when I hear the words "artificial heart" or "robotic heart", I would think of a device which replaced the heart, rather than a device which implants into the heart.

      I agree, the interesting thing about this article is that they think they will get 25 years out of it. The last LVAD project I worked on (in 2005), it was expected that max reasonable lifetime for a patient would be 5 years with the implant.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by GPSguy ( 62002 )

      The illustration behind the surgeon in the article looks a lot like an impeller-driven left ventricular assist device. It's not an artificial heart, but could, conceivably, be half of one. In the old days, when most VADs were pulsatile, they could effectively replace a non-functioning ventricle and produce pulsatile flow, very much as the heart does. However, they were bulky and had their own problems. Pulseless, continuous flow, impeller-driven pumps are less likely to develop clots on surfaces, which wil

  • We'd gotten this treatment for the Tin Man. It would have saved him an awful lot of trouble, what with having to go to the Emerald City and all.

  • Article (and doctor) says that it's powered by a plug that inserts behind his left ear. Does that mean he has a power cable running from his head to his chest? How did they implant that? I somehow doubt they made an incision the whole length. Did they run it along a blood vessel? They also said the implant itself fits into the left ventricle. So is the pump basically just powering half of heart, and relying on residual pressure to work the other half? If he's suffering from muscular degeneration, does havin
    • Article (and doctor) says that it's powered by a plug that inserts behind his left ear. Does that mean he has a power cable running from his head to his chest? How did they implant that?

      It's not terribly difficult to run the wire under the skin up the neck to the ear. Better question is why would you? Convenience? Keeping it outside of the typical shirt? Why not use an inductive transfer?

      They also said the implant itself fits into the left ventricle. So is the pump basically just powering half of heart,

      That's enough to pump the blood through the body. Better than no working heart at all; and, leaves the original there to do what work it can. Although this doesn't sound like exactly the same device, they've been around for a while: see ventricular assist device.

      • Inductive transfer is both untested in terms of human use (I think), and you want something that can stay Firmly in place, not fall off if you happen to change your shirt.

  • Repo Men? (Score:2, Interesting)

    This sounds like something straight out of the movie Repo Men [], which makes me wonder... how much does one of these things cost? And what happens if you can't pay up?
  • Sounds like they just implated a LVAD Left Ventricle Assist Device, Dick Cheney just had one implated a couple of months ago.

  • I imagine it to be much like this. []

    (can't believe that's actually relevant.)

    Warning: robot gang fight.

  • "Implanted an artificial heart" somehow got translated into "Transplanted a robot heart" ?

  • I wonder if in the future, this type of procedure will be standard. Say you hit 55 and the stats say you'd be better off just replacing the heart instead of taking the risk of a heart attack.

    I could see this happening. And with millions getting the treatment every year, costs would likely go down 2-3% with HMOs pocketing the rest of the savings.

  • by wonkavader ( 605434 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @05:24PM (#33788440)

    I know I should lighten up, but I really resent the decay of the term robot. Robots are autonomous devices. They were so when the term was first used in Rossum's Universal Robots.

    A mechanical heart is not a robot. It only does work for you in a purely physics definition. (If you allow a physics definition of work for robot, then a lever that bends slightly is a robot -- it reacts to the amount of weight put on it by bending and it does 'work' for you.)

    This heart is a mechanical device. It ends there. It is not a robot.

    Similarly, remote-controlled devices, no matter how cool, are not robots. You are controlling them. They are not autonomous. We are not fighting the war in Afghanistan with robots. Stop saying that.

    This pisses me off not because it's devaluing a term I think will be important someday, when we actually do have robots, but because it reflects a growing (or was it always there?) stupidity amongst the populace. They know what a robot is on a macro level, but they have no idea what this heart is on the most basic mechanical or control level. They don't understand machines of any sort, electronics of any sort, or fine distinctions of logic. They don't think about things and they're more interested in what sounds cool than what's correct.

    Years ago, I put an extra question on all our screening tests for job applicants in computer jobs (networking, IT, etc). It was "How does a light bulb work?" The number of people who left the answer blank, answered "I don't know" or answered incorrectly was staggering. Not surprisingly, the people who knew enough to be considered for the computer job also generally knew how a light bulb worked and tended to answer the question in detail with something close to glee.

    They constituted a vanishingly small percent of the applicants.

  • Robotic? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rockypg ( 787998 )
    Why is this "robotic" and not just "mechanical" ?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RapmasterT ( 787426 )

      Why is this "robotic" and not just "mechanical" ?

      Because journalism schools no longer value "accuracy" where "sensationalism" will suffice.

      It's like a newspaper headline that says "Unemployment literally explodes in 4th quarter". The fact that their using words incorrectly, and thereby spreading non-factual information, is less important than grabbing attention.

  • by clickclickdrone ( 964164 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @05:29PM (#33788472)
    Artificial hearts of one sort or another have been around since the 70's. All that's really new here is his age.
    • There was talk about a child's version being tested. I think that this might be just that. The adult version is a bit bulky.

  • Now all he needs is a motorcycle with a nuclear warhead sidecar tied to his heartbeat and some glass knives and he can live out the rest of his days as the world's biggest badass. As a plus, the US government will do absolutely anything to make sure he doesn't die, ever.
  • by nanoakron ( 234907 ) on Monday October 04, 2010 @06:35PM (#33789076)

    Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is a progressive, irreversible muscular disorder where the muscle cells literally pull themselves apart due to the lack of a key membrane-stabilising protein, Dystrophin.

    So now this boy's heart can't give out for 25 years, you're then only consigning him to die of suffocation as his diaphragm does.

    Oh no, ventilator. Well, let's wait for his oesophagus, colon and eye muscles to go...

    But he's still alive, just locked into an immobile, artificially ventilated body with a heart that will never stop.

    That seems worse than the natural alternative to me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SharpFang ( 651121 )

      So, they gave him another 2-3 years of reasonable life with an acceptable heart, before his lungs give in. That's still better than "die now." He doesn't have to stay all of that 25 years as a plant, but he can still get as much as he can from what "reasonable quality" of life is left.

      And then, when his lungs begin to fail, he will just pull the plug.