Unit 2: Science Connection

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The Beat Goes On

How do you fix a broken heart? That may sound like the title of a country music song, but it is a question that has long tested the limits of medical science.

Doctors save the lives of about 2,000 people each year through heart transplants. The difficult operation involves replacing a person's diseased heart with the healthy heart of a person who recently died.

Unfortunately, there are not enough human hearts to go around for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who develop heart disease each year. Now, however, there may be new hope for heart disease victims: an artificial heart that doesn't miss a beat.

Bionic Heart

In 2001, doctors in Kentucky implanted a heart made entirely of metal, plastic, and epoxy (a strong glue) in the chest of a dying man.

The AbioCor artificial heart is about the size of a grapefruit and looks like a hamburger with four legs. Although doctors began experimenting with artificial hearts almost 20 years ago, the AbioCor is the first completely artificial heart that can operate without being attached to an external machine.

Heart surgeons Laman Gray and Robert Dowling implanted the first AbioCor heart in Robert Tools, 59, a former telephone company worker and teacher. The operation lasted seven hours.

Before surgery, Tools was so weak he could barely eat or lift his head. His diseased heart was barely pumping blood to the rest of his body and was unable to keep other organs working normally. “He was one of the sickest patients I've seen,” Gray said.

After the surgery, Tools slowly regained strength. His kidneys, liver, and lungs started functioning normally. He stood and posed for pictures with his doctors. He even left the hospital for a short trip and enjoyed a fast-food hamburger.

Batteries Included

The AbioCor gets its power from a pair of 2-pound battery packs that the patient wears on a belt. The batteries, each the size of a VCR tape, run the artificial heart for about four hours. The batteries can be recharged from any electrical outlet.

The battery packs transfer power through the skin to a device called a controller and to a rechargeable internal battery. The controller regulates the AbioCor's pumping rate. The internal battery can operate for 30 minutes and allows a patient to take a shower or a bath without the power packs.

Inside the artificial heart, a motor turns a fluid-filled sac, which help pumps blood.

The AbioCor has two ventricles, or discharging chambers, similar to a natural heart. The right ventricle takes blood containing carbon dioxide from the body and pumps it to the lungs, where the blood picks up oxygen. The left ventricle collects the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the body and its organs.

Extending Life

The AbioCor is not yet available to everyone; the government has granted permission for five patients to receive the artificial heart. If each of those patients lives with the AbioCor for two months without complications, the government could approve it for future use.

The first five patients chosen for the operation, including Tools, have advanced heart failure. This means their hearts have a tough time pumping blood through their bodies. In the months after Tools had his operation, doctors implanted AbioCor hearts in two other heart patients.

Lab tests suggest that an AbioCor heart could last at least five years (roughly 180 million beats) in ailing people.

Tools is grateful for every day with his new heart. “Life is wonderful,” he said.

Word Wise

An operation in which tissue or an organ is transferred from one body or body part to another.

On or for the outside or outer surface: A nose is an external feature.

Of or located within something: The stomach is an internal organ.

Made by human beings rather than occurring in nature: This gum has artificial sweetener in it instead of sugar.

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Look at the words “external” and “internal”. The words are similar, but have opposite meanings. In the word “external”, the prefix ex- means out or outward. The prefixes in- and im- mean in or inward. The prefixes in- and ex- give these words opposite meanings.

Word Wise Quiz
Use what you know about the prefixes ex-, in-, and im- to answer the questions in the Word Wise Quiz.

Data Hunt

The Beat Goes On Quiz
How much did you learn from “The Beat Goes On?” Take the Beat Goes On Quiz to find out.