Here's something you don't see in your local gadget store: a machine that takes a dead animal heart and keeps it beating so scientists can perform various tests on it. Gross!
"Researchers can obtain pig hearts from a pork processing facility and use the system to test their prototypes or practice new surgical procedures," says Andrew Richards, a Ph. D. student in mechanical engineering at NC State who designed the heart machine.
The computer-controlled machine, which operates using pressurized saline solution, also allows researchers to film the interior workings of the pumping heart - enabling them to ascertain exactly which surgical technologies and techniques perform 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," says Dr. Greg Buckner, 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." Buckner is an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State.
Using the system could also save researchers a great deal of 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 $US25 to run an experiment on the machine," says Richards, "whereas a similar experiment using a live animal costs approximately $US2,500."