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Wireless charger could power tiny heart pump

Students at Rice University devise a way to remove the wires currently needed to power ventricular assist devices in patients with weak hearts.

With more patients needing heart transplants than there are hearts available, a tiny heart pump called a ventricular assist device (VAD) can be a lifesaver. But the pump, which is inserted into the aorta via a catheter that helps blood flow, requires wiring leads that run out of the patient's body to a battery pack, and this setup can easily result in infection.

The device uses an alternating magnetic field on the exterior unit to create alternating current on a second coil under the skin to power the pump. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

So a team of computer and electrical engineering students at Rice University have devised a method to power the VAD without wires breaking through the skin.

The team used a small coil and a battery inserted a centimeter beneath the skin at waist-level, which in turn uses wires to power the VAD. They then added a belt-mounted external battery and coil that uses an alternating magnetic field to create alternating current in the subcutaneous coil, thus wirelessly charging the embedded battery.

"The Rice team brought us a quick, capital- and resource-efficient proof-of-concept system to show we can power our device through [transcutaneous energy-transfer]," Rice alum Michael Cuchiara, who asked the students to work on the concept for his VAD company Procyrion, said in a school news release. "There was no reason to think we couldn't -- but until you do it, you don't have it."

The team, which calls its project tCoil, admits the prototype is still a ways from development, let alone human testing. But the students' recent demonstration at the school's engineering design showcase -- where they placed the internal and external coils on either side of a baggie of lunchmeat to simulate power transfer through the skin -- won the Best Interdisciplinary Design Project prize.

"The next steps will be to miniaturize it and put it in biocompatible casing," said student Tyler Young. "Once that's done, it can be implanted for large animal testing." Then Procyrion will start the process of FDA approval.

Check out the team's demonstration of the prototype below: