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Artificial Heart Inventor Was Inspired by His Plumber Father

Bivacor founder Daniel Timms learned fluid dynamics and how to get things done

2 min read
Timms and his father in Brisbane, Australia.
Photo: Daniel Timms

When Daniel Timms was growing up in Brisbane, Australia, he spent many hours helping his father build wild contraptions featuring pumps and waterfalls. His father, a plumber with a passion for invention, taught Timms about fluid dynamics and also instilled in him “a practical attitude toward getting things done,” Timms says.

In 2001 Timms’s father was diagnosed with a condition that would gradually rob his heart of its ability to pump blood throughout his body. That’s when Timms, who was then getting his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, began working on a revolutionary design for an artificial heart [see “This Maglev Heart Could Keep Cardiac Patients Alive”]. He enlisted his father in the effort, and the two began tinkering with prototypes in the backyard shed. With pipes and valves from a local hardware store, they built a rudimentary model of the human cardiovascular system so that they could hook up prototype heart pumps for testing.

After Timms got his Ph.D., he went to Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital and convinced physicians in the cardiology unit to clear out a room, which he turned into an engineering lab. Just down the hall was the intensive care unit (ICU), where his father regularly ended up as his heart problems worsened. Timms would drop his tools and walk down the hall to visit.

The last time his father was admitted to the ICU, in 2006, it was Timms who drove him to the hospital. Timms was supposed to get on a plane to Germany the following day, where he was to meet with potential collaborators. Timms asked his father whether he should cancel the trip. “He said, ‘You’ve got to get there; this is what we’ve been working for,’ ” Timms remembers. His father passed away a few days later. But the trip did lead to a fruitful collaboration, which led to other partnerships in Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. Today Timms’s company, Bivacor, has its headquarters in Houston, where it’s preparing for clinical trials of its artificial heart. Timms is sure his father would be pleased with the outcome of their backyard tinkering.

This back story article appears in the September 2019 print issue as “Taking Lessons to Heart.” It’s an accompaniment to the print feature article, “The Maglev Heart.”

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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