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Heart pumps for children pass milestone

Mark Steele, 4, is hooked to a large machine in a tiny room at Children's Hospital.

Blood-filled tubes snake from his chest to the device, which pumps blood through his body to keep him alive while he waits for a donor heart to replace his failing one.

The boy -- who dreams of being a rock star and thinks Sean Connery was the best James Bond -- can't return to his St. Albans, W.Va., home while relying on the machine.

Doctors at Children's announced Thursday that two pediatric heart pumps they helped invent reached important milestones that could enable children like Steele to await transplants at home.

"The idea is that (the devices) are simple and self-contained," said Dr. Peter Wearden, director of the Pediatric Mechanical Cardiopulmonary Support unit at the Oakland hospital. "Our goal is that they would go home with the patients."

The National Institutes of Health gave Children's and medical device manufacturer Levitronix $2.3 million to finish developing and start clinical trials for PediVAS, a small, external heart pump designed for infants and small children. It relies on magnets to spin a small propeller that moves blood from the heart to the rest of the body, giving children up to an additional month for a donor heart.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a larger version of the device for use in adults and bigger adolescents.

"Device makers didn't want to make these devices for kids because there are only maybe 300 to 600 kids a year that would need them," Wearden said.

In order to give pediatric heart patients even more time and make the heart pumps less bulky, Wearden partnered with professors at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to create PediaFlow. The walnut-sized device would be implanted beneath the child's skin, with only a wire coming out to a Walkman-sized battery pack.

Like PediVAS, PediaFlow uses magnets to spin an enclosed propeller, but it has the potential to keep a child alive for up to six months.

Yesterday, Wearden said he was in the last year of a $4.5 million federal contract to develop the internal pump and would soon apply for another contract that would allow him to begin clinical trials.

"I think sometimes just the environment of the hospital makes it more emotional and stressful," said Rhonda Thornton, Mark's Steele's aunt. She spends weekdays at Children's while Mark's parents work.

"If he could just be home," she said, while digging through a book bag for a Batman action figure. "He'd be so much more comfortable."

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