A sheep with an artificial heart – or maybe not

May 16, 2013

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.

Tianjiu was calm, reasonable and well aware of the environment, looking into the camera while his mate wanted to eat parts of my clothes and have a quick horn fight. In the meantime more journalists arrived so it became a bit overcrowded and difficult to work. Luckily, Liu Xiaocheng, the leader of the project and president of the Tianjin TEDA International Cardiovascular Hospital, decided to take Tianjiu out for a walk. In order to leave the room Tianjiu wore a multi-pocketed vest filled with cables and gadgets to help his VAD pump the blood through his body.

Outside his enclosure Tianjiu was pretty lively. Passersbys couldn’t believe their eyes: a doctor being dragged by a ram wearing a strange vest while journalists ran around trying to take pictures and video. We ended up on some grass outside the hospital where Tianjiu was left alone for a while.

He ate some grass and leaves and was posing for pictures even more – definitely enjoying the freedom. I said goodbye to Dr Liu and left the place thinking about the fact that the ram was the 18th experimental and only successful subject who has lived long enough to prove that the device that takes blood from a lower chamber of his heart and helps pump it to the body and vital organs, works just as a healthy heart would.

Good luck, Everlasting.

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