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Heart pump goes wireless, and UPMC's part of it

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

A wireless, implantable heart pump that could provide unprecedented freedom for patients is drawing national acclaim, and the UPMC surgeon and his partner who developed it are working to perfect the device and begin testing it on animals.

Dr. Pramod Bonde, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland, said the device could free those who need heart pumps from being tethered to an external battery pack. It could eliminate the chance of infection and irritation that patients face from external cords that connect batteries to the heart through the abdomen, he said.

"The advantage to a patient can't be described in words. The biggest motivation for me is trying to improve my patients' lives," Bonde said.

Bonde has watched implantable pumps -- known as left ventricle assist devices -- and their batteries shrink and improve over the years. He said a wireless pump that could be implanted with less invasive keyhole-type surgery is the next logical progression.

Bonde began tinkering with the concept about six years ago. In 2008, he spoke with Josh Smith, a University of Washington professor of computer science and electrical engineering, who was working on the same concept.

Last month, three years after they began collaborating, the men presented their prototype at the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs' annual conference in Washington. The organization recognized their work with the William J. Kolff/Don B. Olsen Award.

"It was sort of like a best-paper award," Smith said.

Bonde and Smith are applying for a National Institutes of Health grant to perfect their prototype and begin animal tests of the device, a metal coil that produces an oscillating electro-magnetic field that a wireless receiver in the heart uses to power the pump.

Although Bonde and Smith concede they must clear many hurdles, and approval might be years away, they are optimistic.

"It is a simple concept," Bonde said about wireless energy transfer. "It was proposed almost 100 years ago by Nikola Tesla." (Tesla, who worked for Thomas Edison and later George Westinghouse, developed the alternating current system and patented more than 700 inventions.)

Although devices such as implantable pacemakers and insulin pumps work on internal batteries, heart pumps use far more energy. They require heavy external batteries that are tethered to the patient with a drive-line cord that runs from the implanted pump through the abdomen to the power source.

"The surgery is fairly straightforward and standard. It takes three to four hours. It's the post-operative care that is a challenge," Bonde said.

The pumps, initially envisioned as short-term bridges to transplant, can function for several years. The longer a patient needs a pump, the greater the risk of irritation and infection, Bonde said.

Smith and Bonde foresee a system in which power coils could be placed around a patient's home, freeing the person to work and function within the home. The coils would have a range of about one meter. Bonde said a vest with an eight-hour power supply could provide additional mobility, with a small two-hour battery implanted in the chest as another back-up.

Tim Baldwin, deputy chief for the Advanced Technologies and Surgery Branch in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Division of Cardiovascular Disease at the National Institutes of Health, is familiar with the Bonde-Smith prototype. He said researchers are working in several directions to improve pumps and the way they are powered.

"Anything done to eliminate the drive line would help the patient. ...This is one idea that's a fairly novel idea to eliminate that problem. It would be a pretty significant change, if it works," Baldwin said. "But dramatic improvements don't happen overnight. They take a good bit of time."

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