Rocket science may not be able to fix broken hearts, but very soon technology mastered at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) may be able to help patients who are in need for a heart transplant.
Materials and mechanisms used on Indian rockets have been tweaked by ISRO to make a device which some describe as a step towards the making of an ‘artificial heart’.
The heart assist device has been tested on animals and found to be successful.
Better known for orbiting satellites and flying giant rockets, the multi-talented team at ISRO made this heart pump as a spinoff technology development in the spare time. Cardiologists are very excited with this development as it offers a lease of life to terminally-ill patients since heart transplant still remains out of reach for most.
Using materials and knowhow perfected to make lightweight rockets and satellites, scientists at ISRO have perfected a device that assists the human heart to pump blood especially in cases where the left ventricle, the most powerful part of a human heart, starts to fail.
Called the ‘left ventricular assist device’ this small electrical device can pump 3-5 litres of blood every minute. Kiran Kumar, the chairman of ISRO said this rocket technology offered an alternate system to pump blood in very ill patients and can definitely save human lives.
The special pump made by the Indian space agency can also be powered using an indigenously made highly energy dense battery, the Lithium Ion cell, that has also for the first time been made in India again by another team of rocket scientists.
The pump, which weighs about 100 grams can be fitted inside the body or placed externally and it needs a hook up to a battery to power it.
Made from a special alloy of titanium the device is ‘bio-compatible’ says K Sivan, Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC), in Thiruvananthapuram where the special heart pump has been mastered.
Rocket scientists at VSSC use titanium alloys for making rocket engines and satellite components as a consequence they have total mastery on the metallurgy and manufacturing of the material. The same material that is flown on rocket engines has been remodeled to make the compact but high tech pump.
Sivan says “we have seen that the device is meeting all the bio-mechanical requirements, and the pumping requirement. This particular device was tested on six animals. It was tested for 6 hours, and after that, the other organs of the animal were checked. They were intact. This is a very great achievement. It’s a successful device. Definitely it is a major step towards the ultimate development of an artificial heart by ISRO.”
The device pumps blood using a common technology called a centrifugal pump. The electronics and the magnets used in the tiny pump have been fabricated by the same engineers who make lightweight systems used on Indian satellites. The pump had to designed in such a fashion that even with continuous operation it should not heat up and should obviously be fail proof.
The device which is akin to an artificial heart has been tested on half a dozen pigs. Cardiologists at the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTMST) in Thiruvananthapuram surgically operated healthy pigs and replaced the functioning of the left ventricle of the pig with this special pump developed by ISRO.
The pig survived a full 6 hours, which was the full design of the experiment. No damage was reported to the blood as it was pumped by the device after it had bypassed the biological heart, even the other organs of the pig suffered no damage for the full duration of the experiment.
Scientists at SCTMST say “this remains a work in progress” and further experimentation will be done on animals before the device can be tried on humans. Wealthy Indian patients needing a heart transplant but unable to get the matching donors already import these devices and some of these left ventricular assist devices have already been installed on patients at some private hospitals and even at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.
Importing a heart pump device and then implanting it costs over a crore of rupees says cardiologists familiar with the technology, in contrast, scientists at VSSC say the device developed by them cost just Rs 1.25 lakh.
The rocket scientists say the cost differential is so large simply because the expertise and the materials already existed at VSSC and all they had to do was to assemble the right team of specialists that included metallurgists, electronics engineers, specialists on flow mechanics and designers who worked alongside cardiologists to come up with a suitable design.
It took a team of about two dozen specialists about six years and after many permutation and combination, they came up with the right design.
“It is a complicated device to make and this is an exciting development,” says Balram Bhargava, Professor of Cardiology, and Executive Director, Stanford India Biodesign Centre, School of International Biodesign, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi who confirms that no one in India has till date to the best of his knowledge designed indigenously a left ventricular assist device, adding that it is an important bridge for patients awaiting a heart transplant.
Bhargava cautions that the device is to be used only in very specific medical circumstances.
Interestingly VSSC has also very recently developed high value Lithium Ion battery which could now be used to power the heart pump.
India has all along been importing these Lithium ion cells but recently Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari mandated ISRO to master this technology so that it can be used to power zero pollution electric vehicles.
Sivan says VSSC will try to miniaturise these Lithium Ion cells which can hopefully power the left ventricular assist device.