A team of French researchers has developed an artificial heart that resembles and beats almost exactly like the real thing.
The news is providing renewed hope to hundreds of thousands of patients who suffer from heart failure and for whom standard drug therapy, ventricular assistance or a heart transplant have failed or aren't possible.
The team, led by Dr Alain Carpentier, a renowned French heart surgeon, presented a prototype of the artificial heart during a press conference Monday in Paris. Carpentier has been working on this project for the past 15 years.
"This new total artificial heart is a first, because it is made of biosynthetic tissues," Patrick Coulombier, deputy managing director of Carmat, the biomedical company that developed the heart, told ABCnews.com. These materials, made from animal tissue, are less likely to be rejected by the human body.
Carmat was founded by Carpentier and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, or EADS, which develops and markets civil and military aircraft as well as missiles, space rockets and satellites. The company plans to make 15 of these new artificial hearts. The first human trials are expected to start in two to three years.
Since the 1980s, several artificial heart projects have been put forward, most of them ventricular substitutes installed while the patient waited for a heart transplant. But none of these seem to have succeeded in resolving most complex long-term problems, such as infections and above all, the blood clots.
The French team hopes its device can work without clots forming.
"The risks of blood clots are limited with this new artificial heart because of the use of biosynthetic tissues," Coulombier explained. These tissues were first invented by Carpentier more than 30 years ago for cardiac valve prostheses, which are sold today all around the world and are made from animal tissues chemically treated to prevent human immune systems from rejecting the heart.
"Also, the smooth shape of the internal ventricles allows a complete and rapid wash of these ventricles in order to avoid having stagnant blood in some areas of the heart and thus the formation of blood clots," Coulombier added.
The device reproduces the physiology of a normal heart, with two ventricles equipped with micro pumps reproducing the same characteristics seen in a human heart. The pumps allow the blood flow to circulate through the artificial heart, just like in the human body. Valves allow the blood to circulate in one way.
External batteries will power up the artificial heart, allowing the patient to be completely autonomous. The same kind of batteries have been used previously in artificial hearts already developed, notably in the United States, in 2001. The heart will have a life span of five years. By then, it will have beaten 225 million times.
But until the human trials start, some in the medical world remain cautious.
"This artificial heart is still in its early stage of development and hasn't been tested in humans. Some of the concerns, for example, thrombosis, might not become apparent until human testing occurs," Dr. Abe DeAnda, associate professor of cardiac surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, told ABCNews.com.
This latest device does not quite look like the first artificial heart in history. In December 1982, retired dentist Barney Clark received this first artificial heart. He remained connected to a 400-pound air compressor until he died 112 days after the implantation.
"It's not about putting a machine in a human body, it is about giving patients a life worthy of being lived and a normal social life with the least medico-dependency," Carpentier told France 2 TV Monday.
Today, Carmat is looking for about $100 million in funding to bring the project to completion. And if all goes well, the French artificial heart will be on the market as an alternative to transplant in 2013.