Beating, dripping pig heart: It's gross, but it saves lives

RALEIGH, N.C. — The sight of a dripping-fresh, human-sized heart, it turns out, is both repulsive and attractive. Especially when it's suspended in the open among an elaborate array of tubes, pumps and valves. And when it's pulsing as though alive.

"There are basically two reactions," Andrew Richards, a North Carolina State University graduate student, said of the macabre wheeled contraption he calls the Heart Cart.

"'Ewww, gross' or 'Ewww, cool.'"

The pulsating hearts come from pigs. And the new machine, despite its startling appearance, has serious practical applications for researchers such as Richards who are developing new medical equipment and techniques for use on humans.

Pig hearts are so similar to humans' that the valves are often used to replace defective human hearts. The Dynamic Heart System — its real name — pushes saltwater through recently removed pig hearts to make the valves move in a natural way. It can be programmed to simulate a range of heart rates and blood pressures to mimic specific defects or healthy hearts. The idea is to use $5 pig hearts from a slaughterhouse to speed research, trim costs and reduce the number of live animals used in the tests.

It's a new intermediary step between concept and live animal testing that can save thousands of dollars, many animals and the months of red tape that it can take to get approvals for testing live pigs, said Gregory D. Buckner, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who oversaw the project.

"It's very likely that in some cases we'll eliminate an entire cycle of animal testing and shorten the research and development," Buckner said.



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