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An Indian artificial heart
Imaging: Iqbal M. Shaikh

Finally, there could be an artificial heart with a Made-in-India tag. Nearly 40 years after the West invented a crude, pneumatic-powered device that could pump blood quite like a normal heart, Indian biomedical engineers are trying something similar, but one which is more efficient and reliable.

The artificial heart, or biventricular pump as its inventor Sujoy K. Guha of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IITK), calls it, consists of two identical artificial ventricular pumps, made of a series of interconnected diaphragm chambers. A battery-driven motor controls the compression and expansion of the chambers.

The device, which was the main draw at a recently concluded event — called IndAc 2008, that showcased new technologies developed at IITK — draws inspiration from the heart of a cockroach which has a fail-safe mechanism. A cockroach’s heart has as many as 13 chambers, unlike the four in a human heart. As a result, failure of a single chamber in the former does not become life threatening unlike in the latter, says Guha. Moreover, the pumping of blood in a cockroach’s heart happens in a staged manner, which reduces the build up of pressure, often experienced in the human heart.

“The inventiveness of our work lies in recognising the merits of the cockroach’s heart and adapting them to the needs of the human system,” said Guha. Guha’s team, which has already tested the device on frogs, has recently sought permission to test it on goats. A patent application has also been filed for it.

“The technology is ready for clinical trials,” said Guha. “A series of diaphragms divides the load of the pump, thereby increasing its longevity,” he added. The internal flow is designed to prevent excessive blood recirculation, stagnation and mechanical trauma. An obvious advantage of such a device would be to lower the need for heart transplants. “With increased understanding of the heart’s functioning and continuing improvements in prosthetics, computer science, battery technology and fuel cells, a practical artificial heart may be a reality in the 21st century,” said Guha.

Apart from the artificial heart, an impressive array of technologies was on display from Guha’s team. These include a personal cooling device that can substitute for energy-guzzling airconditioners and a unique male contraceptive, a single shot of which remains effective for a record 10 years.

The new air-cooling device that Guha’s team developed works on the principle of cooling localised domains around an individual as opposed to the current practice of total room cooling. The approach utilises two focused and directionally controlled air streams working alternately. “The cooling is achieved by a combination of thermoelectric cooling and water evaporative cooling. It thus relieves heat stress without the discomfort of a strong air blast,” explained Guha.

Such personal cooling is particularly useful in hospital environments as individual ventilation helps avoid cross infection unlike in central air conditioning. “The technology is likely to find wide application in the air conditioning industry,” said Guha.

Guha’s team also gave birth control a new face — a non-surgical male contraceptive that disables the sperm from penetrating the ovum. The drug, actually a gel, is injected into the vas deferens, the vessel through which the spermatozoa move before ejaculation, and within an hour produces an electrical charge in them that impairs fertilisation, explained Guha.

The contraceptive, called Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance (RISUG), which has been in development for some time, has many advantages. Since it’s a non-surgical procedure, those who opt for it can leave the hospital immediately after the injection. Normal sex life can be resumed within a week. Also, it is long lasting with a single 60mg injection effective for at least 10 years.

But what happens if the person later wants a child? “The effect of RISUG can be reversed by flushing the vas deferens with another drug, also developed at the institute,” said Sumana Das, a PhD student working with Guha. RISUG is also being tested for protection against HIV, informed Das.

Yet another biomedical device that stood out at the show was a heart sound analyser. Developed by Goutam Saha of the department of electronics and telecommunication engineering, this device makes the traditional stethoscope far more useful as a primary diagnostic tool for heart valve-related disorders through advanced digital data acquisition, signal processing and pattern recognition techniques.

Another sector that had a number of technologies on display was agro and food processing. These included techniques to make curd powder, tomato powder and a mango milk-based fruit bar.

Professors Sunando Das Gupta and Shirshendu De of the department of chemical engineering devised a method for the production of organic fertiliser — something similar to vermi compost — from tannery effluent. “Apart from generating a good fertiliser, the technology offers a solution to a burning pollution problem,” said De and Dasgupta.

Another unique invention was that of a portable infusion pump for injecting small quantities of chemicals at a very slow rate over extended periods of time. “This could be useful in the medical sector as some drugs need to be released into the body very slowly,” said Prof. A. Roy Choudhury of the department of mechanical engineering. The pump could provide 5ml of liquid at a continuous rate for over 15 hours, said the inventor.

Stress was also laid on patenting the inventions. “In this century, knowledge is power and students must be aware of their intellectual property rights, patents and copyrights to safeguard their scientific work,” said Prof. Damodar Acharya, director of the institute. Proposals were submitted for filing 21 patents during the two-day jamboree.

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