Fuel pumps help heart failure

18 September 2017

Interview with

Stuart Higgins

What happens when the science and technology of space comes Down to Earth? This week, Stuart Higgins explores how NASA's fuel pumps have helped to develop more efficient heart pumps back down on Earth.

Stuart - Welcome to Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists. The miniseries that explores the spinoffs from space technology that are being used in life on Earth. I’m Dr Stuart Higgins…

When David Saucier, a NASA engineer, suffered from a heart attack in 1983 little did he know that it would spark a collaboration between the space agency and doctors. After receiving a heart transplant Saucier ended up chatting to his heart surgeon, Dr Michael DeBakey, and realised there was a need for effective heart pumps. The pumps, known as ventricular assist devices, help support a patient with heart failure while they’re waiting for a transplant. However, the existing ones were large, cumbersome and prone to clogging.

Soon, the NASA engineers were meeting the medical team at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas to help design a new kind of pump. The engineers were experienced in designing high-performance fuel pumps for the space shuttle. These pumps are used to maintain the fuel injection rates into the rocket engine to ensure consistent levels of thrust.

Together with clinicians they developed a miniature high-performance pump that could be fitted inside patients. The pump helps minimise the strain on the heart while the patient is waiting for a transplant, and the team hopes in the future that the pump itself might ultimately be used as an alternative to transplants.

One of the problems with existing pump designs was that they let regions of slow-moving blood accumulate around the pump. This led to coagulation and clotting causing serious problems in the patient when the clot was suddenly released and got trapped in a blood vessel in another part of the body.

In order to overcome this, the engineers simulated the blood flow through the pump using the same techniques and approaches developed for the space programme. Their computer model allowed them to develop specially shaped inlets and outlets in the pump that reduced dead regions and hence clotting. These changes also minimised the damage to blood cells caused by friction with the pump’s surfaces.

The heart pumps have now been successfully implanted in hundreds of patients worldwide with further trials ongoing. Although there is one side effect to having a pump supporting your heart and that’s a lack of detectable pulse. Although, according to one journal article, after some initial confusion nurses treating patients quickly got used to this.

So that’s how the expertise in modelling fuel pumps for rocket engines has been used to develop a new heart pump for patients suffering with heart failure.

That was Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists and join me again soon to learn about more space technology that’s changing lives back on Earth.

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