A heart pump using flywheel technology, developed by engineers at Nasa’s Glenn Research Centre, has raised hope of a better life for children born with only one heart ventricle, or essentially half a heart.
The idea to use heart pump powered by a Nasa designed flywheel motor to help circulate blood for children born with only one heart ventricle was mooted by Mark Rodefeld, paediatric heart surgeon at Indiana University.
While the technology has been successfully developed, the motor needs to be scaled down to the required diameter – the size of a nickel, the researchers said.
“About 1,500 children are born every year with a missing ventricle,” Rodefeld said.
“The numbers sound low, but it’s actually the fifth most common problem in those with heart issues,” Rodefeld said.
By having half a heart, essentially the body is missing half of its pumping ability to oxygenate blood and circulate it to stay alive.
Currently, the best solution is a heart transplant. However, it’s a limited option due to donor availability and short-term success.
The next best solution, and most commonly used with patients, is a partial fix called the Fontan procedure, which requires three open-heart surgeries to create a passive circulation network to replace the blood pumping function of the missing ventricle.
“The children survive, but eventually, inefficiency in circulation due to the low pumping pressure catches up with them in their early adulthood when the remaining part of the heart gets worn out from doing all the work,” he said.
So Rodefeld came up with an idea to insert a small conical pump, driven by an electrical motor, into an existing Fontan network.
This pump would reproduce the pressures and flow coming from the body and head, reducing the wear and tear on the single remaining ventricle and extend the life of the patient.
“I knew I wanted to put a bi-conical motor into the cross section of the network, but I needed experts in flywheel technology at Nasa Glenn to design and scale it to size,” he explained.
A team of engineers at Glenn spent two years designing, building and testing a bi-conical heart pump for Rodefeld.
Eventually they completed a functional prototype of the bi-conical heart pump to allow for traditional motor operation as well as levitation operation.
The Glenn team’s extensive design, build and testing led to successful results proving the feasibility of Rodefeld’s original idea, Nasa said in a statement on Tuesday.
And while the size of the motor has been scaled down significantly, engineers need to make it even smaller to fit into the Fontan circulation architecture.