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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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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