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Science & Environment

'Ticker' And Building An Artificial Heart


More people die from heart disease than anything else. In the U.S., it accounts for 1 in 4 of all deaths. So you might think by now there'd be a better treatment for ailing hearts. Sure, lots of people get bypass surgery or even heart transplants. But there aren't enough donor hearts to go around. And so for half a century, researchers have tried to create what many consider the holy grail of medicine, an artificial heart. Mimi Swartz tells the story of their many struggles and successes in her new book "Ticker: The Quest For An Artificial Heart (ph)." She joins us now from member station KUHF in Houston. Welcome to the program.

MIMI SWARTZ: Thank you for having me.

LUDDEN: Take us back to the 1960s, where you start your story, when doctors were coming up with ideas for heart surgery and the idea of transplanting hearts and even trying to conceive of an artificial heart and how that could work. But beyond the sheer medical challenge here, there were all these cultural and ethical dilemmas they faced, right? Like, people thought that someone's heart was something you just shouldn't mess with.

SWARTZ: Right. People thought that it was just wrong to cut into the heart, so they didn't for a while. And it really wasn't until World War II that they started realizing, oh, well, we actually can cut into the chest and not kill someone.

LUDDEN: And they thought that if you put in someone else's heart, maybe that person wouldn't love the same people (laughter).

SWARTZ: Yes. This was one of my favorite things when I looked into transplants - is that when Barney Clark got an artificial heart, his wife was terrified that he wouldn't love her anymore.

LUDDEN: This was back in 1982?

SWARTZ: '82. But I think people thought, oh, my God, you know, you can't put a black person's heart in a white person. You cannot possibly put a woman's heart in a man. I mean, it's interesting that with the heart, sort of the emotions we ascribe to it get all wrapped up in the medical techniques also.

LUDDEN: So they got beyond that. And you write about this group of researchers and doctors in Houston - big egos, big personalities and a big state (laughter). Tell us about these two pioneers who had this incredible rivalry that helped shape this field - Dr. Denton Cooley and Dr. Michael DeBakey.

SWARTZ: When I started looking into it again, it was kind of like the right stuff for heart surgeons. These were people with outsized personalities and outsized wills. And the story really starts in Houston with the theft of an artificial heart from Michael DeBakey's lab. And DeBakey at the time was perhaps the most famous heart surgeon or surgeon in the world. And his nemesis was a guy named Denton Cooley, who, for a time, worked under him and got tired of waiting for Dr. DeBakey to put this artificial heart in someone. So he purloined it with the man who had designed it into DeBakey's lab and put it in a man. And the operation, to some extent, was a success because the patient lived. And this became the most famous feud in medical history.

LUDDEN: Now, you said that the patient in that first implantation lived but not forever with that artificial heart.

SWARTZ: Not for long - not for very long. And sort of just enough for Cooley to say, well, we know it works for a little while, at least. And we've got to keep trying.

LUDDEN: This is something that keeps coming up in your book, you know, the doctors are, you know - these operations are a form of research. I mean, they're learning as they go.

SWARTZ: There was no regulation at the time. I mean, the calves that they experimented on in the '60s came from Cooley's ranch. And when I was researching this, I heard this really bizarre story. And I asked - I had one source that I trusted implicitly. And I called her, and I said, I heard that Dr. Cooley put a pig's heart in somebody. And she didn't bat an eye, and she said no, no, no, it was a sheep. Those were the days (laughter). You know, today, we have the FDA. We have hospital review boards. We have all kinds of things.

LUDDEN: When you say artificial heart, you know, the first name that might come up is Robert Jarvik. I mean, some listeners might recall his name. He created a heart that kept Barney Clark, a dentist from Seattle - kept him alive for 112 days back in 1982. That was a huge story, huge story at the time. And that was a long time ago (laughter). Where are we today? Are people still getting artificial hearts implanted today?

SWARTZ: It's interesting. Jarvik kept going. And there is a form of an artificial heart that Jarvik designed that's probably the best. But there is no total replacement. You know, a battery-operated - something that - they can cut you open, put this piece of titanium in, sew you back up, and you're good to go.

LUDDEN: So from all your reporting, did you, you know, finish this up thinking, we're going to see an artificial heart in our lifetime?

SWARTZ: I do. I do. It is, along with the cure for cancer, the holy grail of medicine. But I think at various times, you know, they would have part of the heart, but technology had to catch up. They'd have a heart that pumped but not a battery that would keep it going long enough. Or they'd have a battery at one time that would last forever made of plutonium, but they didn't have a heart that could last that long. So I think, finally, what we're seeing is the technology and the medicine getting closer and closer together.

LUDDEN: Mimi Swartz is the author of "Ticker: The Quest To Create An Artificial Heart." Thank you so much.

SWARTZ: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.