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Back to the future: Penn State Heart to Penn State Health

Eric Yeager makes blood sacs in Penn State Hershey’s Division of Artificial Organs by dipping polished stainless steel molds into honey-colored liquid polyurethane polymer. One dip takes 30 minutes, so gas bubbles don’t form.
Eric Yeager makes blood sacs in Penn State Hershey’s Division of Artificial Organs by dipping polished stainless steel molds into honey-colored liquid polyurethane polymer. One dip takes 30 minutes, so gas bubbles don’t form. Photo provided

In 1985, everyone was following Marty McFly into the past and jumping ahead with the movie “Back to the Future.”

Take a look at the Centre Daily Times from Oct. 21, 1985, the day that Michael J. Fox’s character took off in his supercharged Delorean-based time machine, and you see that the Cardinals were up by two games over the Royals in the World Series. The Steelers had just scored a “must” victory, also over the St. Louis Cardinals, before the football team moved to Phoenix. There was a guest editorial about helping learning-disabled children learn better.

And there was the Penn State Heart.

While many remember the Jarvik 7, the artificial heart implanted into a man in 1982, three decades later, it can slip people’s minds that Penn State was also on the cutting edge of artificial organ design.

On that October day, the recipient of that piece of Penn State medical engineering had received the technology. The article spoke about the case as people followed along. There had been some speech problems and questions about whether the patient suffered a stroke. Not so, doctors said. The patient would live 27 days with the device.

A second attempt in 1986 bought the next patient 13 months.

But that was then.

At the end of the first movie in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, McFly takes off for the unknown, heading to Oct. 21, 2015.

It’s a wild new world of hoverboards and flying cars, things that haven’t quite come to pass, and constant connectivity via screens around the house, which is a little closer to reality.

But what about that heart?

Today, Penn State’s relationship with the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is closer than it was 30 years ago, especially with the finalization by university trustees this year of the creation of a new entity, Penn State Health, bringing the long-standing partnership into a fully-realized marriage.

Part of that new entity is the Division of Artificial Organs. While it’s constantly evolving new hybrids of engineering, medicine and technology, it is actually a department about as old as the medical center itself, born when former National Institutes of Health cardio-thoracic surgeon William Pierce came to Hershey to work on the artificial heart in 1970, according to the university.

Today, Gerson Rosenberg is the head of the division, with his team of groundbreakers forging ahead on devices that help hearts work better while patients, old and young, wait to hear that they have received a precious new organ for transplant.

“We are unique in that everything from start to finish is done in one location,” Rosenberg said in a recent university statement.

Researchers have received millions of dollars in foundation grants and federal contracts to grow their projects. And the road to the future ... well, roads? Where they’re going, they don’t need roads.

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