Pumping New Life

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans get the bad news that their hearts are weakening and unable to pump the blood that their bodies need. The outlook in such cases is not nearly so grim as in past decades, thanks in part to pioneering research done by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Penn State.

illustration of heart assist pump in human body

The Penn State heart-assist pump, about the size of a fist, rested on a patient’s abdomen and was connected to the patient’s own heart with plastic tubes that passed through the chest.

A key member of that team was William S. Pierce, who was recruited to the newly established Penn State Milton S. Hershey College of Medicine in 1970 specifically to develop a heart research program.

“One of the things that led me into this field was the risk involved in cardiac surgery,” Pierce recalled. “When I first started in cardiac surgery [in the early 1960s], the risk was 50-50. By 1970, a lot of people were having open heart surgery, but 5-10 percent of them still couldn’t come off the heart-lung machine after the surgery. They died on the table.”

Pierce recognized that a solution could be found only through collaboration between surgeons and engineers—uncommon thinking for that era. He worked with a team that included Penn State mechanical engineers Gerson Rosenberg, John Brighton and Winfred Phillips, and James H. Donachy, fabrications director in the Medical Center’s Division of Artificial Organs, to perfect a pneumatic-driven assist pump that could wean patients off the heart-lung machine in the aftermath of surgery and help the heart heal.

“The heart has to work hard right after surgery and we believed this assist pump could support circulation while the heart recovered,” Pierce explained.

One of the biggest challenges was creating a pulsatile heart pump so that the flow of blood was adjusted as the person sat, stood, walked, or exercised—just like a normally functioning heart. Other pumps being developed at the time had a continuous flow that did not adjust.

heart pump

The Penn State heart-assist pump was designated an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1990.

A landmark in the team’s efforts came in 1976, when Pierce attached the pump to the heart of a young woman who could not come off the heart-lung machine following open-heart surgery. As soon as the device was connected, her heart began pumping blood. Within days, her heart recovered, she was removed from the machine, and she went home.

By the 1980s, hospitals around the country were asking for the Penn State heart-assist pump and the device was further perfected and commercialized for implantation. It gained further value also as a “bridge” to sustain patients with weak hearts while they were awaiting transplants. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the pump an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1990, by which time the device had already provided circulatory support for more than 250 patients without a single device-failure-related fatality.

The Penn State heart-assist pump helped establish the Hershey Medical Center as a leading research institution. The pump’s design and operating principles also created a strong foundation for further heart-assist research at the Medical Center and elsewhere—work that has ultimately saved the lives of thousands of people and significantly improved the quality of life for many more.

Additional resources

Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute

History of heart research at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center (PDF format)

Last Updated March 22, 2012