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Drexel Engineer Receives Hartwell Biomedical Research Award to Aid Children With Heart Defects

Dragon Heart
This ventricular assist device is specifically designed with infants and children in mind.

The Hartwell Foundation has awarded a 2016 Individual Biomedical Research Award to Amy Throckmorton, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at Drexel University. 

These awards support early-stage, innovative biomedical research with the potential to benefit children — in Throckmorton’s case, children with life-threatening heart conditions. The award provides funding to individual researchers for three years at $100,000 per year.

As a Hartwell Investigator, Throckmorton will work to perfect a potentially life-saving artificial heart for infants and children whose bodies are too small for current implant devices.

Every year, thousands of U.S. babies are born with life-threatening heart defects and must undergo several open-heart surgeries in the first few days or years of life. A growing population of children also develops inherited heart diseases or is exposed to viruses or bacteria that can lead to early onset heart failure.

Amy Throckmorton, PhD

Current treatments only slow progression toward heart failure without providing a path to improvement. The shortage of donor organs and added difficulty of size matching for children complicates cardiac transplantation and extends donor waiting periods.  

Fortunately, patients can benefit from mechanical circulatory support in the form of a ventricular assist device (VAD), which is designed to help the heart's left ventricle (pumping blood to the body) or right ventricle (pumping blood to the lungs). These medical devices serve as a life-saving bridge for those waiting for a transplant.

Development of VAD technology for children, however, continues to lag behind devices made for adults, due to the wide range of child sizes, the increased cardiovascular demand with growth, and the diversity of childhood heart disease. There is a compelling, unmet need for a pediatric VAD with design innovation to address these design requirements.

With support from interdisciplinary collaborators at Drexel, Throckmorton is addressing current VAD limitations for children by creating a versatile and compact mechanical blood pump with only two moving parts and a long operational lifespan. Hartwell funding will allow her to further improve and miniaturize the innovative pediatric VAD.

This new medical device will use the latest generation of magnetic bearing technology to levitate rotating impellers that drive blood flow across biocompatible surfaces. The device will have a low risk of damaging blood cells and producing blood clots.  

“It has been an ongoing struggle to develop a VAD technology that can support growth from infancy to adolescence and the dysfunctional states of childhood heart failure. The design versatility of this blood pump satisfies those two challenging goals,” Throckmorton said. “This pediatric VAD can be used to mechanically support the right or left side of the heart, or both sides of the heart simultaneously. It is unlike any device in the world.”

The Hartwell Award will enable Throckmorton to continue to speed new breakthroughs in developing the novel magnetic levitation system. Her work will advance the new technology’s design with animal studies within the next few years.

“The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their hopes and dreams. We want the research we support to make a difference” said Fred Dombrose, president of the Foundation. “If the innovation that Amy proposes is successful, it will reshape a complex clinical problem by providing life-altering and life-saving therapy that will benefit countless infants and children affected with heart failure.”

The project will advance the collaborative efforts of the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Hahnemann University Hospital, Cedars Sinai Heart Institute, Pediatric Cardiology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and industry partners, including Rotor Bearing Solutions International and Applied Rapid Technologies.