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Science trumps sentiment as France claims breakthrough with first artificial heart transplant

'Holy grail' of transplant surgery is performed on 75-year-old man

“Ah, what a trifle is a heart,

If once into love’s hands it come!”

John Donne, The Broken Heart

That line, and those of thousands of other poems and love songs, may have to be rewritten, according to Professor Alain Carpentier, the inventor of the world’s first fully artificial, self-regulating heart.

His contraption is now beating inside the breast of a 75-year-old Frenchman. Controlled by a computer and made partly from chemically treated animal tissues, it is the culmination of a 30-year quest by Mr Carpentier, 80, for the “holy grail” of transplant surgery.

Asked on Sunday to comment on his discovery, he quoted the celebrated 19th century French scientist Claude Bernard: “Whatever the poets may say, the heart is just a pump.”

Mr Carpentier went on to add, however: “It’s a rather special kind of pump. If your loved one came through the door [and you had a Carpentier artificial heart], it would start to beat faster, just like a real one.”

Other types of artificial heart have been constructed and fitted, with varying degrees of success, such as Robert Jarvik’s device first implanted in 1982. Mr Carpentier’s invention is claimed to be the first to be completely artificial and self-regulating.  It was constructed by a French medical engineering company, Carmat, and transplanted into a patient by two surgeons at a Paris hospital in a 10-hour operation last Wednesday.

The operation, leaked to the French press before it was to be officially announced this week, is reported to have gone well. The patient was said to have been “near death, without any other alternative available” but is now responding well.

Mr Carpentier hopes his artificial heart, powered by replaceable batteries carried outside the body, will help to solve the chronic shortage of hearts for transplant surgery. Unlike a real donor heart, it should not provoke rejection by the host.

The Carpentier heart weighs 900g, is roughly the same size as a real heart and imitates its functions exactly. Electrical sensors and microprocessors monitor the demands of the body for blood and adjust the operation of the heart accordingly.

In an interview on Sunday with the Journal du Dimanche, Professor Carpentier said he began his work on artificial hearts three decades ago. “I was confronted with a painful situation,” he said. “I was a doctor with a patient who was about to die from a defective heart when there was no transplant available.”

Mr Carpentier initially developed artificial heart valves made from chemically treated animal tissues. “I then decided to try to create an entire heart with these same materials,” he said.

The cost of a Carpentier artificial heart is estimated at £100,000 to £135,000 – about the same as the overall cost of providing a transplanted heart from an accident victim. The present model is the right size for 70 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women, but Mr Carpentier is developing a smaller version.