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Shelley McKellar: Exploring spare parts for diseased hearts

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Professor Shelley McKellar, PhD, is exploring the development of artificial hearts. Unlike her colleagues, she isn’t conducting her research in a lab or an operating room. McKellar is the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine and is working on the final chapter of her book documenting the history of the artificial heart.

“My research is focused on the allure of medical technology, and the fascination with being able to replace bits of our bodies,” said McKellar.

When she first set out to write this book she thought it would be a great story about a failed technology. However, she was surprised to learn that there have been a series of momentous successes along the way. In 1964 the National Institute of Health (NIH) set up the U.S. Artificial Heart Program with the goal of creating a suite of cardiac devices, some that could be attached to a diseased heart and others that could completely replace a heart that was too damaged and could no longer function. The NIH told the world that they would have a mechanical heart in hand by Valentine’s Day of 1970, only six years later. 

“They quickly learned that there was a lot more complexity to it,” said McKellar. “Creating a mechanical heart involved a lot more than just creating a pump.”

It wasn’t until 1982 that Barney Clark became the first successful recipient of a permanent artificial heart. He lived for 112 days and was one of the only people who regained consciousness and was able to tell his doctors and the world what it was like to have a mechanical heart. 

“It was exciting, but there were also a lot of difficulties,” said McKellar. “Poor Barney Clark was literally tethered to a machine the size of washing machine.”  That machine housed the pneumatic driver of the pump for his heart.

In her book, McKellar explores not just the role of the researchers and scientists in developing this technology, but the role that the government played in the regulation of the use of the devices, the role that industry played and how the media reacted to the successes and failures along the way.

McKellar says today the technology has emerged in a different incarnation.  Called “ventricular assist devices,” they are used as a way to assist a damaged heart, rather than completely replacing it.  These ‘artificial hearts’ have found a place for those who are in transition waiting for heart transplants, and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry has a robust ventricular assist program here in London under the direction of Dr. Dave Nagpal.

“In many ways it is a success story, in that it is a huge technological feat to be able to replicate the heart,” she said. “On the other hand, I hope it will encourage people to take better care of their original parts as much as they can.”