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Cash injection for Aussie artificial heart

A $50 million government grant will boost an Australian project that began with a life-saving trip to a hardware store.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 6 mins

Australia is pioneering the development and commercialisation of what’s hoped to be the world’s most advanced artificial heart.

It’s a technology that could halve deaths from heart failure globally and contribute $1.8 billion to the economy.

The Artificial Heart Frontiers Program brings together five universities, three clinical partners, and an Australian-grown company to develop what’s now known as the Total Artificial Heart.

Unlike previous devices, the Total Artificial Heart uses magnetic levitation technology that promises to be durable for more than 10 years, is small enough to implant in a child, and powerful enough for an adult.

The shape of its rotor blades allows the artificial heart to speed up and slow down automatically as someone’s activity level changes – just like a real heart.

From little things big things grow

The ambitious idea came to Dr Daniel Timms as he watched his father dying of heart failure.

He remembered how, as a child, he helped his plumber dad build an elaborate garden of fountains and waterfalls in their backyard.

With this as inspiration, he went to Bunnings to buy pipes and other plumbing paraphernalia to create a prototype artificial heart.

“I thought: ‘The heart is just a pump’,” Dr Timms told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We build pumps for everything. Why not this?”

Dr Timms took a replica to the cardiology team treating his father in Brisbane. “[One doctor] slammed his fist down and said it’d never work because ‘you have to have a pulse’,” he recalled. 

But the other organised a small salary and a room downstairs in the hospital for Dr Timms to work and wished him luck.

Dr Timms travelled overseas, meeting experts and perfecting the design of the device, before eventually moving to the United States and successfully conducting animal trials.

“Putting this heart in someone is like sending it into space,” Dr Timms said. “You can’t just pop the hood if something goes wrong. We’re thinking like we’re building a space shuttle. We can’t make any mistakes. We test and test and test. My dad taught me that.”

The artificial heart will be tested in humans for the first time this year in the United States and then Australia, with plans to manufacture in both countries in the next few years.

Surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney have already briefly placed dummy replicas of the device inside the chests of heart transplant patients before they attached their donor organs, to check the design lined up correctly with the body’s plumbing.

The good news is, it worked.

Now, with $50 million from the Australian Government, the journey towards full human trials begins.

What is heart failure?

  • Heart failure is a condition where your heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should.

  • It is usually a long-term condition – unlike heart attacks, which occur suddenly.

  • Common symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue, swollen legs, and a fast heartbeat.

  • It can’t be cured, but is managed with lifestyle changes, medicines, and sometimes surgery.

  • Every year, over 23 million people around the world suffer from heart failure, but only 6,000 will receive a donor heart.

  • Nearly 500,000 Australians live with heart failure. Each year, around 60,000 Australians are diagnosed with the condition.

  • About 100 patients undergo a heart transplant each year for advanced heart disease, but many more do not get the chance.

What causes heart failure?

Damage, weakness, and stiffness to your heart commonly develop after a heart attack or coronary heart disease.

Other causes may include:

  • Long-term conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, and HIV

  • Damage to the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) caused by infection, excessive alcohol use, or certain medicines

  • Faulty heart valves

  • Certain conditions you were born with

  • Pregnancy, which causes your heart to work harder than normal.

Your doctor will investigate why you developed your heart failure. Understanding what caused it can help you and your doctor decide on the best way to treat it. 

Further reading: SMH, Sky News, Monash, Federal Health Minister, Health Direct


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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