A new machine developed at North Carolina State University makes an animal-heart pump much like a live heart after it has been removed from the animal's body, allowing researchers to develop new tools and techniques for heart surgery.
The machine saves researchers time and money by allowing them to conduct tests on the heart in a realistic surgical environment, without the cost and time associated with animal or clinical trials.
Currently, most medical-device prototypes designed for use in heart surgery are tested on live pigs, which have heart valves that are anatomically similar to human-heart valves.
However, these tests are expensive and time-consuming and involve a lengthy process to ensure that the use of live animals is necessary.
This is why researchers at NC State developed the 'dynamic heart system', a machine that pumps fluid through a pig heart so that it functions in a realistic way.
'Researchers can obtain pig hearts from a pork-processing facility and use the system to test their prototypes or practise new surgical procedures,' said Andrew Richards, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at NC State and the designer of the heart machine.
The computer-controlled machine, which operates using a pressurised saline solution, also allows researchers to film the interior workings of the pumping heart.
This enables them to ascertain exactly which surgical technologies and techniques are best for repairing heart valves.
By using the machine, researchers can determine if concepts for new surgical tools are viable before evaluating them on live animals.
They can also identify and address any functional problems with new technological tools.
'There will still be a need for testing in live animal models,' said Dr Greg Buckner, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State who directed the project.
'But this system creates an intermediate stage of testing that did not exist before.
'It allows researchers to do 'proof of concept' evaluations and refine the designs before operating on live animals.'
Using the system could also save researchers money.
Once the machine is purchased and set up, the cost of running experiments is orders of magnitude less expensive than using live animals.
'It costs approximately $25 (£16.37) to run an experiment on the machine,' said Richards.
'A similar experiment using a live animal costs approximately $2,500.'
The US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health funded the development of the heart machine system.