Patients in underprivileged countries could eventually have widespread access to life-sustaining pacemaker devices thanks to an ongoing University study.

The study, called Project My Heart Your Heart, tests recycled pacemakers in order to see if they can be implanted in patients. The Researchers involved in the study — funded by the University’s Cardiovascular Center — are currently working toward acquiring Food and Drug Administration approval to begin a clinical research trial to test their devices on a large group of patients.

Kim Eagle, the Albion Walter Hewlett Professor of internal medicine at the University’s Medical School and the clinical director of the University’s Cardiovascular Center, co-founded the project and is one of six researchers currently involved in the study on campus.

Eagle said he was motivated to start the project two years ago with his colleague Timir Baman, a clinical lecturer in internal medicine at the University’s Medical School, after Baman had a patient who requested to have her pacemaker donated to a deserving individual after her death.

The idea of pacemaker reutilization is not new, Eagle said, but efforts made by other institutions to create such programs either failed or fell short of expectations.

While some doctors perform recycled pacemaker implantations on individual cases, Eagle said his project seeks to “bring the whole thing into the light.”

Without an established donation program in place, Eagle said he and Baman first had to generate public support for their project. Since the project began, Eagle said he’s seen an overwhelming level of interest in the program with more than 2,000 pacemakers donated in the last eight weeks alone.

The majority of donated pacemakers come from funeral homes across the state and from the Michigan Funeral Directors Association in Okemos, Mich. Eagle said.

LSA junior Lindsey Gakenheimer, a collaborator on the project, said the response from funeral directors across the country has been “amazing” so far.

Gakenheimer said her team has overseen a steady number of pacemaker donations, with as many as 1,000 donated in a single month. Once the team collects the devices, Gakenheimer said, they’re carefully examined in a lab at the Cardiovascular Center.

A special machine then scans each pacemaker to uncover information about its battery life, origin and other details. “Good” pacemakers are set aside to sterilize for the upcoming clinical trial the team plans to conduct, Gakenheimer said.

Eagle said he hopes to oversee the implantation of 250 devices in patients in Nicaragua, Guam, the Philippines and Vietnam during the team’s planned clinical trial this summer. The donation process will be facilitated by World Medical Relief, Inc., a Detroit-based organization that distributes medical resources to regions in need, which often include developing nations.

“We’re confident the patients that are going to get (pacemakers) need them medically and financially,” Eagle said.

Once the clinical trial is completed and the team publishes its findings, Gakenheimer said other countries will have the opportunity to develop their own programs modeled after the University’s. Top-rated research hospitals, like the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and Massachusetts General Hospital, have expressed interest in facilitating the program at their own institutions, she said.

For Eagle, the need for project My Heart Your Heart is simple.

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize this is something we have a moral obligation to do,” he said. “We have a huge opportunity to make a difference.”

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