In an unprecedented feat, British surgeons implanted a donor heart in a dying toddler whose own heart was weak, then removed it 10 years later after the girl's own heart had fully recovered.
The technique is unlikely to become widespread because of the severe shortage of pediatric donor hearts, but it suggests that better mechanical assist devices that take some or all of the load off a diseased heart could allow time for weakened hearts to heal themselves.
The procedure, reported online Monday in the medical journal Lancet, shows that, "The heart has reparative capabilities that we suspected it might have, but for which we have really lacked a great deal of proof," said Dr. Douglas P. Zipes of Indiana University, a former president of the American College of Cardiology. "We need to understand better how it does it, capitalize on that and be able to use it in routine therapy."
In July 1995, Hannah Clark was 2 and suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently.
Doctors grafted a donor heart, obtained from a 5-month-old infant, in parallel to Hannah's own heart.
The heart functioned efficiently, but immunosuppressive drugs began to produce problems - allowing the development of a cancer. The cancer was suppressed, but it kept recurring.
Doctors decided to remove the donor heart and stop the drugs altogether.
Hannah, now 16, has recovered fully from her cancer, and her heart is functioning normally.