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A sheep with an artificial heart – or maybe not

Tianjin municipality, China

By Petar Kujundzic

I took a trip to the port city of Tianjin after China Central Television (CCTV) reported on a sheep with an artificial heart developed at TEDA International Cardiovascular Hospital. According to CCTV, the hospital recently unveiled a new artificial heart, which was implanted in a sheep two months ago. The sheep lived healthily for more than 62 days, a new record among similar experiments in the country.

This sounded like a very good reason to leave Beijing for a day and report about such an extraordinary achievement. Upon arrival we met the hospital’s administration director who told us that this was not really an artificial heart but a ventricular assistant device (VAD), which is basically a mechanical pump that's used to support the heart’s function and blood flow in people who have weakened hearts. He didn't know why CCTV had reported differently.

After being disappointed for a couple of minutes we decided not to go back empty-handed, so they took us to a low-rise building next to the hospital where the star of the experiment was located, a ram nicknamed Tianjiu (Everlasting). The three-year-old ram carried a VAD, which was designed by the hospital to enhance cardiac pumping by using magnetic suspension technologies from state-of-the-art aerospace science.

It smelled like a zoo, and we had to put on scrubs (they weren't my size but I had to follow the rules). Inside a room two rams stood in their enclosures. Tianjiu was connected to a laptop-looking gadget that monitored his heart rate. The other ram was just there to keep him company. Apparently, Tianjiu was sad about being alone so they brought him a companion.

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