Powering a pacemaker with your heart?

By Cory Nealon

The implantable pacemaker, a medical marvel that has extended millions of lives since its invention nearly 60 years ago, is getting a 21st century makeover.

First came a wireless version; these pacemakers, which are AAA battery-sized and placed inside the heart via a catheter through the leg, are being tested in humans in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Now, researchers are developing technology to make these devices battery-free. The advancement is based upon a piezoelectric system that converts vibrational energy—created inside the chest by each heartbeat—into electricity to power the pacemaker.

“Essentially, we’re creating technology that will allow pacemakers to be powered by the very heart that they are regulating,” said M. Amin Karami, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who is leading the research.

The technology may eliminate the medical risks, costs and inconvenience of having a battery replacement every five to 12 years for millions of people worldwide.

A state of constant motion

The idea of heart-powered pacemakers came to Karami after doing PhD work on piezoelectric applications for unmanned aerial vehicles and bridges. He wanted to apply that knowledge to the human body.

The heart was an obvious choice because of its relative strength and constant motion.

“To see the heart in motion—even an animation—is to be awestruck,” said Karami. “It moves significantly. In turn, that movement creates energy that we’re just now figuring out how to harvest.”

He initially designed a fl at piezoelectric structure for a conventional pacemaker. A prototype generated enough power to keep the pacemaker running at a range of seven to 700 beats per minute.

Karami, who is already talking to device-makers, is building the new prototype and expects to have animal tests done within two years. From there, it should be ready for human trials and, eventually, approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The research is supported by UB’s Translational Pilot Studies Fund, an initiative of UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.