March 09, 2015

Daniel Timms’ Stroke Of Genius:BiVACOR Artificial Heart


HE whispered in a Scottish drawl: “You wanna see somethin’ cool?” 
Professor John Fraser has been an intensive care specialist for two decades. He established the Critical Care Research Group at Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital in 2004. He’s seen cool things before: heart transplants; machines that can rebuild a blackened human lung before your eyes; bodies of children wrenched from the cold and still grip of beyond.

It was three years ago when he whispered the invitation, at a backyard barbecue at his house in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. We were eating sausages, talking about outdoor music systems controlled by one’s mobile phone. The things we humans can accomplish. Our wives went to school together. I’d known him for 13 years, long enough to know that when he asks if you would like to see something cool he’s not about to show you a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
John led me into his house, up a set of stairs to the main bedroom. He said a genius had moved into the office next to his at Prince Charles, an obsessive young biomedical engineer who rarely ate, rarely slept, spent his days and nights clanging and banging and grinding away at strange metal objects. John was privy to the best-kept secret in Australian medical ­science. His name was Daniel Timms and inside his small solitary office in Chermside, Brisbane, he was building a miracle.

John unzipped a suitcase which lay in the middle of his bed. He had just returned from overseas. The surgeon dug his hand into a pile of travel clothes and pulled out a pair of dark green men’s underpants, moth-eaten and frayed. “Here you go,” he said, placing the underpants in my hands. “Don’t worry, they’re clean.”

The underpants wrapped and protected something metal, lightweight and spherical, not much smaller than a tennis ball, weighing about 500g. Made of titanium, with clean design lines, it was so perfect and neat and unfamiliar that it felt alien, a product not of our Earth, not of our time. 

The BiVACOR,” John said. A miracle small enough to be implanted inside a child so that they can walk, run, eat, drink, dance and live fully independently without a human heart and without a pulse.

An early prototype for the world’s first long-term total replacement for a failing human heart. A machine with one perpetually moving part that could send oxygen and nutrients to human blood cells via a rotating disc levitating in a magnetic field. A thing of magic. A machine that could gift the 17 million people each year across the world who die from heart disease – the world’s number one killer – another 10 or more years of quality life. A miracle small enough to be implanted inside a child so that they can walk, run, eat, drink, dance and live fully independently without a human heart and without a pulse.

“Without a pulse?” I said.
John nodded. And I said two words that Dan Timms has heard repeatedly these past 15 years; words so blindingly and maddeningly pessimistic they have come to fuel his relentless drive, two words up in lights beside the long night road of his endeavour.
“That’s impossible,” I said.

THERE was a time when men who wanted to fly threw themselves off medieval European towers with vulture feathers strapped to their arms. They were awed and terrified by Mother Nature. They respected her designs, mimicked her wondrous blueprint all the way down to their face-first solid-ground oblivion. In December 1903, the Wright brothers took human flight in a machine that tore up Mother Nature’s blueprint, burnt her designs in a petrol engine powering two wooden propellers. They bettered Mother Nature. A vulture can’t fly 13,000km from Houston, Texas, to Brisbane, Queensland, but a 747 can do it in 15 hours and 25 minutes. And here’s Dan Timms, far above clouds, flying home to make medical history.

Below:Leonardo da Vinci’s Ornithopter flying machine designed in the 1400s.


He remembers where this all began. The closest thing he had to an apple dropping on his head, 15 years ago or more. A PhD engineering student at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology with a personal biomedical interest in the artificial heart. “Early, early, early, at the very beginning,” he says. “I wrote down a rough drawing on a piece of paper.”

A private sketch of an image in his mind. A machine inside a body where a human heart once was. A metal housing for a levitated rotating disc. Large blades on one side of the spinning disc continuously pushing oxygen-rich blood to the body’s arterial tree. Small blades on the other side driving returning blood to the lungs to replenish oxygen. Perpetual. Perfect. He scribbled two words beneath his sketch: “F..k yeah!”

“I had no idea what was required to actually make that device, but it was an early version of what would become the BiVACOR,” he says. He smiles, wistful and reflective. “Dad was still alive at that point.”

THE morning of January 8, 2015, and Timms descends a set of stairs leading to an operating theatre in QUT’s Medical Engineering Research Facility at Prince Charles Hospital. The 36-year-old slips into blue scrubs and enters the theatre where a team of heart ­surgeons, engineers and researchers from the hospital – most of them volunteering their time – will implant his BiVACOR artificial heart inside the sedated sheep ­resting on a steel operating table in the centre of the room.

 John Fraser is here, helping a team of ­surgeons monitor and prep the sheep. In the middle of it all stands Dr Billy Cohn, a pioneering American heart surgeon from the Texas Heart Institute in Houston who flew into ­Brisbane the day before. Beside Cohn stands Steve Parnis, arguably the most experienced cardiac animal surgeon in the world, also from the Texas Heart Institute.
“Mother Nature’s a bitch,” says Cohn. “But she has things she will tolerate and things she will not tolerate, and we’ve got to find those secrets. We’ve done 80-some odd cows in ­Houston with various iterations of continuous flow pumps, and the last seven of them were with the BiVACOR. We don’t know if we can do a sheep. The sheep represents children. No artificial heart has ever been small enough to go inside a child. The place where the heart is in a normal sheep is much smaller and much more restrictive than an adult human’s. If we can get this device to fit inside a sheep and work, it means small women, it means children.”
It means a leap in global medical science.

By Trent Dalton
With many thanks to The Australian