The Six Million Dollar Man to the contrary, most of the body’s key organs cannot be replaced with spare parts. By next year, however, scientists hope to implant the first battery-powered heart in a human. The heart’s designer, Westinghouse engineer David Pouchot, 55, says the 2.8-pound metal-and-plastic organ should last up to 10 years and will require only periodic recharging through the skin. A prototype, now being tested at the University of Utah, kept a calf alive recently for 15 days.
Remarkably, Pouchot set out to develop not an electrical heart but one driven by nuclear power. Only when his $10 million, federally funded research project ran into heavy political flak—as a result of its reliance on a Plutonium power source—did he redesign it to meet the objections. Personally, he still believes in the nuclear heart. “The heart can’t explode,” he says, dismissing laymen’s fears. “Plutonium 238 is different from the plutonium used in weapons, and the shielding won’t breach even if the wearer is run over by a train.” Pouchot concedes, however, that implantees would run a heightened risk of cancer or sterility. “Until some influential congressman has a massive heart attack and needs a new heart,” he says, “the nuclear heart program may not be reactivated.” (The Soviets are reportedly making progress on their model.)
A native of Cumberland, Md., Pouchot grew up in Louisville, Ky. and received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Louisville. Married, with two grown sons—both engineers—he lives with his wife, Margaret, in Monroeville, Pa. A 34-year Westinghouse veteran, Pouchot has no graduate degrees, but prides himself on an original mind. “Sometimes I’ve gotten into trouble because the answer I’ve given is unconventional,” he says. “This doesn’t always get you good grades, but it’s a useful talent when you’re trying to develop something new.”