John Ira Petty
Johnson Space Center

Release: J00-39

NASA/Johnson Space Center engineer David Saucier would have been proud.

Saucier, who worked on the huge turbopumps feeding propellant to the
Space Shuttle’s main engines, suffered a heart attack in 1983. The
following year Dr. Michael DeBakey transplanted a heart into Saucier’s

During Saucier’s recovery, the two talked about heart pumps and space
technology, and how the two might be combined. The eventual result was
the miniaturized ventricular-assist pump. Its first U.S. implant was
announced Thursday.

A total of 32 have been implanted into patients in Europe since late
1998, with good results, DeBakey said at a press conference announcing
the beginning of U.S. trials.

Six months after his transplant sixteen years ago, Saucier was back at
JSC with renewed vigor and dedication and a newfound dedication to
applying shuttle technology to help people with heart problems.

With fellow JSC workers Greg Aber, Jim Akkerman, Dick Bozeman, Jim Bacak
and Paul Svejkovsky and with DeBakey, and Baylor College of Medicine
specialists Robert Benkowski, George Damm, Dr. Kazumi Mizuguchi, Dr.
George Noon and Dr. Yukihiko Nose, Saucier saw the concept move toward
the reality that is helping the heart of a 31-year-old woman in
Houston’s Methodist Hospital today.

“Since my own transplant, I have spent a lot of time visiting people
waiting for a donor heart,” Saucier said during that development phase.
“Sometimes they don’t make it and it’s very tough to watch people
struggle so valiantly and then lose the battle. I feel a real sense of
urgency to come up with a practical alternative to transplant surgery.”

Saucier and the others began working evenings and weekends — on the
pump’s design. In 1992, NASA began funding the project.

“The team was very dedicated,” DeBakey said “and we made a certain
amount of progress considering we were working part-time in all of this.
I got the impression after our first meeting that we had some really
good minds on this problem, and that certainly proved to be the case.”

NASA’s Ames Research Center contributed to the design of the pump that
moves blood efficiently and without damage. Shuttle technology,
particularly that of the liquid hydrogen pumps serving the main engines,
also was applied.

“My goal is to have a permanently installed LVAD pump that can take the
place of a heart transplant,” Saucier said. “That’s when I’ll be

The VAD, initially called the NASA/DeBakey heart pump, became even more
than Saucier envisioned.

In addition to being a more permanent device to help heart patients lead
a more nearly normal life, it also serves as “bridge” to transplant, or
as a device that could help a patient toward recovery by helping rest a
damaged heart.

The result of the efforts of Saucier, his NASA colleagues, the DeBakey
team and MicroMed, is a remarkable battery-operated pump — 2 inches
long, 1 inch in diameter and weighing less than four ounces — that
seems to be an answer to the decades-long quest to develop an
implantable ventricular-assist pump. It is small enough to fit into a
child’s chest.

The tiny device has functioned normally and to specification, said
Dallas Anderson, president and CEO of MicroMed Technology Inc. of
Houston, TX, the company to which NASA granted exclusive rights for the
patented pump technology.

After intense competition, MicroMed was granted exclusive rights to it
in 1996, the year Saucier died.


Editors Note: Johnson Space Center Inspection 2000, Nov. 1 to 3, will
showcase space-based technology for representatives of business,
government and education who are seeking answers to technical
challenges. For more information see