updated 3/5/2004 3:39:44 PM ET 2004-03-05T20:39:44

A new, smaller version of a heart pump that has helped keep adults alive as they await transplants is now ready for use by children who need donor hearts.

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A scaled-down model of the original pump designed by renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey and NASA engineers could be implanted in a child within weeks, according to the producer of the device. The Food and Drug Administration recently signed off on plans to use it, said Dallas Anderson, chief executive and president of MicroMed Technology Inc.

The pump is for children ages 5-16, previously deemed too small for an implant.

“We decided we needed to make a pump for them, because these kids currently ... go onto a heart-lung machine that keeps them pumping 24 hours a day,” Anderson said. “If you were to see it, you would shed a tear.”

The DeBakey ventricular assist device for children helps weakened hearts pump blood throughout the patient’s body by supplementing the pumping ability of the left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of the heart.

The device might make it possible for children to return home, something most have been unable to do, said Dr. Linda Addonizio, a cardiologist with Columbia University Medical Center in New York. Addonizio said about 500 children worldwide await heart transplants.

Device 'badly needed'
The adult version of the pump weighs less than 4 ounces and has been implanted in 240 patients, since it became available in 1998, Anderson said. He said at least three major pediatric transplant centers have ordered the children’s version of the pump, which weighs about the same but has been modified and reconfigured to fit into a child’s narrow chest.

“This has been badly needed in the pediatric area,” DeBakey said.

Besides DeBakey, other developers of the battery-operated device were Dr. George Noon, a surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Houston who assisted with coronary bypass surgery on former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and a group of NASA engineers.

Its creation was the outgrowth of conversations between DeBakey and some Johnson Space Center engineers after he performed a heart transplant on one of them in 1984.

When the doctors and engineers began talking in the months after the surgery, their discussion quickly turned from hearts to the power of a space shuttle engine pump.

Adjustments had to be made, but “they thought that same device could be used to handle blood,” Anderson said.

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