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Robert Koffler Jarvik

Robert Koffler Jarvik


American Physician and Bioengineer

Robert Jarvik is known for his design of an artificial heart. This mechanical device, known as the Jarvik-7, was used with some success during the mid-1980s to permanently replace a diseased heart or to be used temporarily with individuals waiting for a human donor. Although the Jarvik-7 is no longer in use, this mechanical heart prolonged the lives of nearly 50 people and contributed significant information to our understanding of how artificial organs work and how they can be improved upon.

Jarvik, the son of a physician, was a child who enjoyed mentally disassembling things and putting them back together. At age 8 he was building elaborate model boats and airplanes. When he was 16 years old, after watching several surgical procedures with his surgeon father, he invented an automatic surgical stapler that simplified clamping and tying blood vessels. This was to be the first of his five patented inventions.

Jarvik initially enrolled in architecture school at Syracuse University and did not become interested in pre-med courses until his father developed cardiovascular disease. He was rejected from 15 medical schools in the United States before eventually being accepted at the University of Bologna in Spain. He studied there but did not earn a degree. Later, in 1971, he earned a master's degree in occupational biomechanics at New York University. After graduating he joined Dr. Willem Kolff, a pioneer in the field of artificial organ research at the University of Utah. With the encouragement of Kolff and his own personal interest in designing and developing the artificial heart, he once again entered medical school and in 1976 earned his M.D. degree.

Kolff and Jarvik joined their expertise in 1977 and together launched a bioengineering company, Symbion, to research and develop artificial hearts. Kolff, a Dutch-born physician, had been involved in artificial heart research since the mid-1950s. Kolff's artificial heart design successfully kept a human patient alive for more than 60 hours in 1969. Building on Kolff's research and design, the two men worked together for nearly 10 years to re-design an effective artificial heart.

The artificial heart that the two developed was identical to the structure and action of a natural heart. The Jarvik-7 artificial heart was constructed of plastic, aluminum, and polyester and required an external source of power supplied through a system of compressed air hoses that entered the heart through the chest. This compressed air energized and regulated pumping action of the device. The artificial heart was designed to function like a natural heart and had two pumps (ventricles), each with a disc-shaped mechanism that pushed the blood from the inlet valve to the outlet valve.

The completion of the device was generally met with some skepticism within the medical community. At the time, human heart transplants were experimental, and sufficient numbers of human hearts were unavailable. Therefore, the artificial heart held great promise for thousands of people with life-threatening heart disease even though the procedure was experimental.

In 1982 a team led by cardiac surgeon William DeVries (1943- ) of the University of Utah implanted the first Jarvik-7 device into Barney Clark. Clark lived for 112 days until he died from complications of a stroke. In 1984 William Schroeder received a Jarvik-7 and lived for a record 620 days before he died of similar complications. The artificial heart was implanted three additional times, and unfortunately all of the recipients died. It appeared that the man-made metal and plastic materials triggered a physiological response as clots formed on pump surfaces and broke free and lodged in the brain.

After these deaths, the Jarvik-7 was used only for individuals awaiting a heart transplant. In 1986 the federal government requested that the artificial heart not be used on human beings until additional research was conducted.


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