Sunday, December 08, 2013

Space Technology in Medicine: The Carmat Heart

           by Sarah Ansari-Manea

The Carmat Heart. Photo c/o AP.
The world’s first completely artificial heart, made with the same technology seen in the satellites soaring around the Earth, has been approved for human testing in Europe, and is expected to be transplanted into a patient before the end of the year.

As outlined in the December 5th, 2013 press release from the European Space Agency (ESA) Technology Transfer Program office titled "Space in your Heart," the prosthetic is the result of 15 years of collaboration between inventor Alain Carpentier and aerospace giant Astrium, the space subsidiary of EADS. In 2008, with support from the French Government and investors, Prof. Carpentier founded the EADS spin-off company, Carmat, to complete the work.

Professor Alain Carpentier.
Utilizing world class satellite engineers and Astrium’s experience in building precise and durable space systems, Carpentier managed to fill the missing links observed in previous attempts at the artificial heart. A combination of biological tissue and miniature satellite equipment, the Carmat heart combines medicine, biology, and electronics to effectively imitate a real heart.

The fusion of space technology with medical and biological sciences to create a potentially lifesaving organ is not only a feat of human engineering, it’s also a great example of how advanced space technology and expertise can benefit our lives here on Earth in a concrete way,” said Tech2Market’s Claude-Emmanuel Serre. Tech2Market is a French based firm which has worked with the ESA in the past to commercialize space derived technology. 

Failure in space is not an option. Nor is onsite maintenance. If a part breaks down, we cannot simply go and fix it. It’s the same inside the body,” according Matthieu Dollon, Head of Business Development for Astrium.

Dependability is crucial for everything that goes up into space, which generally leads to space electronics having higher quality and durability than those from any other field. The testing and retesting of all these high quality electronics is done to extreme precision, leaving little room for error in something as important as a human heart.

Of course, animal hearts do not all beat at the same speed at all times, as they vary depending on the level of exertion of the body. The average heart has to speed up and slow down several times a day, and this was a challenge that the team had to face in their artificial heart. Luckily, satellites must also make changes depending on the situation at hand, to react with changes in environment and temperature, as well as directing antennae and solar wings. This uncanny resemblance allowed Carpentier and his team to take advantage of the technology used by telecommunications satellites.

Its worth noting that congestive heart failure is an international issue, with more than 100,000 individuals suffering without a cure, and occurs when the pumping action of the heart is not strong enough to move blood throughout the body. The only possible solution is an organ transplant, but availability is limited to roughly 4000 donors a year.

This fully functional prosthetic heart has been the dream of cardiologists and heart patients for decades, and could not have been so easily possible without the help and expertise of the men and women in the space industry.

Sarah Ansari-Manea is an aspiring astrophysicist, currently completing a specialist in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto.

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