Houston Docs Team Up with Oil and Gas Engineers to Build New Artificial Heart

Two surgeons at the Texas Heart Institute are working on a new type of artificial heart. Instead of rhythmically pumping the blood, the heart uses two spinning rotors to move blood along. And as KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel found, they’re getting some good ideas from the oil and gas industry.

Bud Frazier and Billy Cohn are doctors, not engineers.

To build a new type of artificial heart, they worked with what they had.

Cohn describes how they joined together two existing medical implants called ventricular assist devices.

“So this is a $75,000 thing that comes out of the package, and you take scissors and you go ‘Okay’ and start cutting it up. And there’s two of them and everyone’s going ‘God I hope you guys know what you’re doing.’”

After practicing for a few years on calves, Frazier and Cohn implanted their device into a patient in March.

The patient, Craig Lewis, eventually died from other causes.

Frazier and Cohn from Texas Heart Institute
Frazier and Cohn from Texas Heart Institute

But the two doctors say they’ll keep working on the new artificial heart. And they’ve turned to some local oil and gas engineers for help.

“It’s just a spinning piece of metal. It’s just going to spin and spin and spin.”

That’s John Etcheverry. He’s an engineer at Cameron, a company that makes oil and gas equipment. He’s looking at a small centrifugal pump that moves blood by spinning it around. 

“The shape of that is almost exactly the same as one of our large industrial compressors.”

Cameron manufactures pumps, compressors and valves that extract and move oil and gas.

In other words, the company specializes in moving fluids in highly precise ways.

Dr. Cohn points out that blood is just another fluid.

“To go to this company that’s been working on sophisticated pumps for moving fluids, for decades. And they looked at this and immediately started talking about variable pitched inducers to increase efficiency. Which is something we’ve never done. We don’t know how to do. It’s not part of our field.”

Cameron builds long-lasting pumps that can self-regulate.

The pumps can speed up or slow down depending on gas volume or oil pressure.

Again, Etcheverry:

“It’s a long-lasting technology, too. We have centrifugal devices that run for years and years and years without any maintenance, without any human intervention.”

A volunteer team from Cameron is examining how these oil and gas technologies might be incorporated into a heart pump. They’re thinking about ways to shrink components and make them safe for human tissues.

Cohn says it could take a long time for this collaboration to produce a market-ready device. But he says it’s a partnership that makes sense.

“What is Houston known for? Petroleum and hearts. And many of the board members on the big heart hospitals are from the petroleum industry. It’s amazing that we haven’t sat down and said ‘Let’s work on this together.’”

Now they are.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...