Artificial heart programme halted after trials setback

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Britain's heart transplant programme suffered a setback yesterday with the announcement that doctors at Papworth hospital, Cambridgeshire have abandoned a trial of a mechanical device designed to replace the human heart.

The battery-operated pump, about the size of a grapefruit, was inserted into the chest cavity and took over the action of the patient's own heart. It was seen as a potential answer to the shortage of donor organs, whose numbers have fallen mainly because of declining deaths in road accidents.

Three of the devices were implanted in patients considered unsuitable for human transplants and two more were used in patients at the John Radcliffe hospital, Oxford, but all have since died.

John Wallwork, director of transplantation at Papworth, said there had been difficulties in recruiting suitable patients and worries about the device. 'We now realise that the technology was not quite up to it," he said. However, the hospital remained interested in trying new devices.

The decision is the second blow to the heart transplant programme this year. Hopes that animals might provide an alternative supply of organs were dashed when the Government imposed a moratorium on experiments using hearts from specially bred pigs until more research has been done on the risk that they could transmit disease.