ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Pumps that boost weakly beating hearts can be implanted permanently in the terminally ill, offering an alternative to heart transplants that could save tens of thousands of lives annually, according to a landmark study released Monday.
These so-called assist devices have been available for several years, but they have been used exclusively to keep patients alive while they wait for heart transplants.
Now the much-anticipated new study suggests a far broader use.
It concludes the assist devices could be a long-term solution for many of the estimated 100,000 Americans each year with congestive heart failure who could benefit from transplanted hearts but cannot get them because the organs are in such short supply.
Doctors tested the HeartMate, the most widely used assist device, in patients with severe heart failure. They found it doubled survival after one year and tripled it after two years, even though complications such as infections and mechanical breakdowns were a significant problem.
"We are looking for a heart on a shelf, and this study was designed to validate that," said Dr. Eric A. Rose of Columbia University, the study's director. "There is substantial hope for patients with the most severe form of heart failure, and I think this will be available for them soon."
The HeartMate, which is the size of a portable compact disc player, takes over the work of the left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chamber. A wire leading through the skin connects to a battery pack that is worn on a shoulder strap.