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New Hope for Heart Patients

Patients who suffer from end-stage biventricular heart failure, a condition where both sides of the heart become weakened and can't pump blood adequately throughout the body, might have a new hope, an artificial heart implantation that surgeons say will serve as a "bridge to transplant."

Last Friday, surgeons at Allegheny General Hospital were the first in this region to replace a failing human heart with the temporary total artificial heart, called the SynCardia total artificial heart. The recipient of the heart was a 63-year-old man who has since been added to the heart transplant waiting list.

To implant the device, surgeons removed the left and right ventricles and the four natural valves of the heart, leaving the left and right atria, aorta and pulmonary artery intact.

A shortage of donor organs limits the option of transplantation for many. There are more than 3,000 on waiting lists for heart transplants in the U.S. and the average wait time is 168 days.

More than 950 SynCardia devices have been used in patients worldwide. The heart is powered with a vacuum device that weighs more than 400 pounds — so typically the patient has to stay in the hospital while on the device. In this patient's case, he carries something called the Freedom Portable Driver. It weighs around 13 pounds and can be carried in a backpack or shoulder bag.

Srinivas Murali, Medical Director of West Penn Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, said if you look at the evolution of heart disease, physicians have come up with a various solutions as the complexity of heart disease increases. "This is another tool. We already have heart transplants, that has its own limitations in terms of availability of organs. We have the LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Divide), which has some limitations because it's not the optimal choice in every patient, and now we have the total artificial heart, which perhaps helps us close the loop a little bit," he said.