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First Temporary Total Artificial Heart in Northeast U.S.
February 27, 2007, Volume 53, No. 24

(From left to right) Michael Acker, Rohinton Morris, Gary Onufer and Elan Howell
at the press conference.

A 46-year-old former fitness instructor, suffering from biventricular end-stage heart failure and in irreversible cardiogenic shock, has become the first to receive a new temporary Total Artificial Heart in the Northeast U.S. by cardiac surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. 

This lifesaving technology is used as a “bridge to transplant” for patients who are waiting for a donor human heart, who have both sides of their heart failing, do not respond to other treatments and are at imminent risk of death. Research has shown that patients receiving the device, called the temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH-t) and manufactured by CardioWest T (SynCardia Systems, Inc.), have almost twice the survival rate versus patients who received standard ventricular assist devices.

Dr. Rohinton Morris, surgical director, Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Assist Programs at Penn and his team performed Penn’s first implant of a TAH-t on February 12, 2007, making Penn a certified transplant center for the new therapy. The patient, Gary Onufer, an Ambler, PA resident, spoke at a press conference last Monday, a week after his six-hour surgery. He said, “I feel very fortunate to have a new lease on life... now I feel very optimistic about the future. It feels great to be a pioneer.”

The TAH-t completely replaced his damaged heart, as opposed to just assisting it, while he waits for a donor heart to become available for transplant. Prior to the surgery, Mr. Onufer’s heart could no longer pump enough blood to sustain his body, damaging his vital organs.

Dr. Morris commented, “This unique new cardiac technology keeps the sickest of the sick—those with damage to their entire heart muscle—alive while they wait for a heart transplant. This is just the latest addition to our already wide arsenal in battling the nation’s number one killer, heart disease. We at Penn are dedicated to pioneer and lead in the field of heart transplantation and mechanical assist devices.”

The TAH-t is a modern version of the Jarvik-7 Artificial Heart that was implanted in patient Barney Clark in 1982. After ten years of study, (from 1993-2003) the TAH-t is now the only total artificial heart approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada and Communité Europeenne for “bridge to transplant.”

Dr. Michael Acker, chief, Division of Cardiac Surgery, said, “Gary is the perfect patient due to his courage, enthusiasm and determination.”

“The TAH-t pumps up to 9.5 liters of blood per minute through both ventricles—making it the highest cardiac output of all mechanical circulatory support devices. This is truly lifesaving technology, implanted to do the work of a failing human heart until another one becomes available,” Dr. Acker concluded.

Penn joins a short, prestigious list of institutions worldwide—becoming the first hospital in the region, 8th in the country, and 15th in the world—to complete TAH-t certification by performing a first proctored implant.

Proceeds of more than $700,000 from The 2006 Philadelphia Antiques Show went to fund new technologies, including total artificial heart pumps, supporting consoles and monitoring equipment in the Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Assist Program in the Division of Cardiac Surgery.

Dr. Rohinton Morris and Dr. Michael Acker have no financial interest in CardioWest or SynCardia Systems, Inc.

Almanac - February 27, 2007, Volume 53, No. 24