Get a Heart, Hold the Pulse

By Jon Sung | Stardate 69094.5 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

It’s stardate 42779.1 and Captain Jean-Luc Picard is not in a great mood: his ship’s chief medical officer, one Dr. Katherine Pulaski, has been telling him repeatedly that his artificial heart needs to be replaced for some time now and the procedure can’t be put off any longer. Picard, who evidently thinks his image as the ship’s invincible captain will take a serious hit if he undergoes surgery onboard (where his crew might potentially find out about it), decides to discreetly tag along with Wesley Crusher on a shuttle to Starbase 515, where a surgical team is waiting for him. The two get some unexpected quality bonding time in while the rest of the crew deals with a sudden hostage situation involving Geordi LaForge and some surprisingly devious Pakleds.

The captain’s cunning plan falls apart when Starbase 515’s surgeons encounter unexpected problems during the heart replacement procedure, and they need to call in an expert — none other than Dr. Pulaski. After getting Geordi back, the Enterprise leaps instantly to Warp 9 and delivers Dr. Pulaski to Starbase 515, where she proceeds to save the captain’s life.

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Upon waking, Picard manages to walk a fine line between gratitude at not being dead, and annoyance at having had his medical business effectively broadcast to the entire ship. He needn’t have worried, as it turns out; his authority, as ever, remains undiminished.

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Is it completely outrageous to discover that even in the 24th century, where you can travel thousands of times the speed of light, conjure Earl Grey tea (hot) from thin air, and transport yourself from orbit to the surface of a planet in seconds, they haven’t quite figured out how to make an artificial heart that won’t wear out? Actually it’s not. First, consider how many times your heart beats. If you’re at the healthier end of the spectrum, your resting heart rate might be around 60 beats per minute (bpm):

60 bpm x 60 minutes x 24 hours = 86,400 beats per day, every day.

That adds up to 31.5 million beats per year. And that’s if you’re fit! The average human heart rate, according to the Mayo Clinic, averages between 60-100 beats per minute — so for the upper end of that range, you’re looking at more like 52.5 million beats per year. And that’s just one year; if you had a heart replacement in your 50s and you expected to live another 20 years, you’d be looking at a cool billion beats over your remaining lifespan. The engineering challenge involved in designing a machine that mimics the pumping action of the heart and yet is also sturdy enough to work for a billion cycles without wearing out or malfunctioning even once is staggering. You have to admit though that the 24th-century version at least looks pretty nifty.

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The trouble is that mimicking the human heartbeat involves a lot of moving parts, and the more moving parts you introduce into a machine, the more potential points of failure it has. But when you get right down to it, what is the heart’s actual job? The heart moves blood through the body. Does it have to do it by beating? Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute don’t think so.

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Instead of a complicated machine that expands and contracts like an organic heart, their BiVACOR® device has a single moving part that spins like a propeller, pushing blood through the body in a continuous stream. It’s an amazingly simple idea: not only is there just one moving part, it’s suspended electromagnetically in the middle of the chamber, eliminating friction and providing a simple way to control how fast it moves. In fact, BiVACOR’s developers say it can adjust its speed 20 times per second. Its simplicity, durability, and comparatively low power consumption give it an expected lifetime of 5-10 years at least, leaps and bounds over current technology.

 

The one quirk of the BiVACOR® design is that by default, its users won’t have a pulse anymore: blood will simply course through their bodies in an uninterrupted, propeller-driven laminar flow. The BiVACOR website points out that by varying the speed of the rotor, you can theoretically produce a pulse, but why would you want to? What if the smooth flow turns out to be a great way to continuously oxygenate your blood, yielding better health and athletic performance for its users? Future marathons might have two categories of runners, one for people with organic hearts and the other for those sporting BiVACOR-style implants. Not that Jean-Luc Picard would need the help — he won the Starfleet Academy marathon with his standard-issue human heart, after all — but the rest of us might not mind.


Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.