Photo of a heart valvue.
The first plastic heart beat for three days. How much further will science take us? CC by Patrick J. Lynch/Flickr

There are millions of items in the vaults of museums that most people do not get to see. The Smithsonian Institution houses many of those. On Monday, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the Smithsonian released a picture of the first plastic heart. That first artificial heart beat for three days.

How the plastic heart began

The first plastic heart ever to be implanted in a human being was surgically installed in 1969. Dr. Domingo Liotta developed the plastic heart, although Dr. Denton A. Cooley implanted it. Dr. Cooley allegedly stole the plastic heart from Dr. Liotta’s lab and implanted it without approval from Dr. Liotta. The patient’s plastic heart beat for three days before a human transplant heart was found. A revolution began with that plastic heart transplant. That first plastic heart is stored at the Smithsonian Institution, which released a picture of it to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.

Development of plastic heart transplants

A fully functioning plastic heart implant was approved by the FDA in 2004, 35 years after the first plastic heart in 1969. The Jarvick-7 was the first viable plastic heart transplant that beat for a long period of time, and it was developed in 1982. The plastic heart that was approved in 2004 is used as a temporary replacement until a human heart can be found for transplant. A permanent plastic heart was approved for transplant by the FDA in 2006, and is called the AbioCor Implantable Replacement Heart. That plastic heart averages a cost of $18,000 a year to maintain and requires a 13-pound device carried in a backpack to be near at all times.

How likely is a self-contained heart to happen?

The 1969 plastic heart dream hasn’t yet been fully realized. Maintenance and heavy equipment are required for a plastic heart to be used, but it can keep a person alive until a human transplant is found. Between the three-day plastic heart and the 13-pound backpack heart, 35 years elapsed. That means that it may be decades before a truly self-contained heart is created — though scientists are already working toward that goal.


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