The artificial heart valve – 38 and going strong

May 29, 2008 by  

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Two artificial heart valves get top billing in the New England Journal of Medicine this week. Two video clips of two artificial heart valves can be viewed in the journal’s website. What is so special about these two valves is that they were implanted 38 years ago in a Canadian woman who is now 67 years old. And they are still working well – and going strong.

The Starr-Edwards artificial valve was developed by the surgeon Albert Starr and the retired engineer Miles Lowell Edwards. The first one was implanted in a heart patient in 1960. Since then, over a quarter of a million heart patients got the implants.

“Starr-Edwards valves use differences in pressure inside and outside the heart chambers to push a silicone ball from one side of a small steel cage to the other, either closing or opening the valve.”

The female patient, who was diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease 38 years ago, had her mitral and aortic valves replaced by the artificial valves. Recently, the patient suffered from dyspnea (shortness of breath) and was hospitalized at the Montreal Heart Institute in Quebec, Canada. The doctor conducted a heart catheterization, a process which involves

inserting a narrow tube into the heart for investigation or treatment. Agents that enhance the contrast in X-ray images can then be added so that blood vessels in the heart show up.”

Edwards believed the human heart could be mechanized and presented his ideas to Starr. Starr encouraged Edwards towards the development of an artificial heart valve. The first Starr-Edwards mitral valve was designed, developed, tested and successfully implanted in a human patient just two years later. The first patient was Philip Amundson, a 52-year-old farmer who had a scarred and deformed heart valve as a result of childhood rheumatic fever. The surgery was performed on September 21, 1960, at the University of Oregon Medical School. The surgery was hailed a great success – a miracle of science – and paved the way to more corrective heart interventions. The patient fully recovered and had a healthy and productive life for another 10 years before he died of unrelated causes.

Edwards founded the company Edwards Lifesciences, one of the world’s leading manufacturer of medical devices. Last year, the company discontinued the manufacture of their trademark valves to make way for newer models.

Lowell Edwards was awarded the American Medical Association’s Layman’s Citation for Distinguished Service, only the 6th person in history to receive the honor.

The citation describes Edwards as “a man of honor and courage whose inventive genius brought about the development of the artificial heart valve and whose long devotion to human welfare in the science of medicine has given new life and hope to victims of heart disease throughout the world.”

It is very inspiring to know that people like Edwards could make a big difference in the lives of many people. Without his valves, this Canadian woman with the 38-year-old valves – and many others – wouldn’t have lived to see their 67th birthday…

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