Addressing his television audience on Monday night, Jimmy Kimmel tearfully thanked the doctors and nurses who saved the life of his son, born last week with a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) with Pulmonary Atresia (PA). The rare disease is characterized by four main heart defects that can be corrected by a series of operations over several years—all made possible by decades of research with laboratory animals.
At Cedars-Sinai, where Kimmel’s wife Molly McNearney delivered the baby, the couple’s doctor performed an echocardiogram on the newborn to confirm that his bluish complexion was the result of a cardiovascular defect. The device, which Kimmel accurately likens to a sonogram of the heart, was developed with experimental research using animals. In the 1950s, researchers credited with pioneering the echocardiogram made medically significant discoveries about the origin of echo signals within the organ by using models procured from calves. Today, scientists rely on animals, from rodents and rabbits to dogs and pigs, to perform experimental research that result in technological improvements to the equipment—potentially raising its efficacy in detecting heart problems in human patients like Kimmel’s baby.
Tetralogy of Fallot must be treated surgically. The infant was taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where Doctor Vaughn A. Starnes “went in there with a scalpel and did some kind of magic that I couldn’t even begin to explain,” Kimmel said. “He opened the valve, and the operation was a success.”
It certainly does look like magic.
The procedure, a Blalock–Taussig shunt, increases blood flow to the lungs thereby alleviating the patient’s cyanosis, or the blue coloring that often presents as a symptom (most commonly of skin on the face and extremities). It involves joining the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery, which the surgical research team first performed successfully with dogs before adapting the instruments for use on humans. This revolutionary development in medical science is lifesaving for infant patients, and it’s also used in the treatment of dogs themselves that are born with congenital heart conditions.
Each year, four of every 10,000 babies are diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot. With corrective surgery, most will thrive, just like Kimmel’s baby: “Six days after open heart surgery we got to bring him home, which was amazing,” the comedian said. “He’s doing great; he’s eating; he’s sleeping; he peed on his mother today when she was changing his diaper; he’s doing all the things he’s supposed to do.”
Kimmel’s son will have a second open-heart surgery in three to six months, and when he reaches adolescence, will undergo a third and final procedure that doctors expect will be minimally invasive. Each will likely require a cardiopulmonary bypass—which mimics heart and lung function for the duration of surgery, keeping the patient alive. The device is an adaptation of early “heart-lung machines;” among the first iterations was a model created in the 1920s by research with canines. The cardiopulmonary bypass enabled the first human heart transplant in 1967—a medical milestone made possible, again, by research with dogs.
Thanks to the skill and expertise of pediatric cardiologists, working with cutting edge science and medicine developed through animal research, more than 63,000 children have been given a new chance at life with successful heart transplants. Many thousands more, including Kimmel’s son, have been successfully diagnosed and treated thanks to research performed with animal models.
Last year we shared the emotional story of Lincoln Seay, an infant who survived open-heart surgery and a heart transplant after he was diagnosed with a rare congenital disorder called heterotaxy syndrome. Manifestations of the condition vary, but, as in the case with Tetralogy of Fallot, it is often associated with cyanosis. Lincoln’s inspirational story serves as another testament to the lifesaving power of modern medicine developed with animal subjects. It also hints at the potential medical breakthroughs on the horizon thanks to promising new research (with zebrafish)!
Like many pediatric cardiologists, Lincoln’s surgeons faced challenges that make their success all the more remarkable: the seven-month-old went into cardiac arrest as they waited for the donor organ needed for his transplant—which necessitated an emergency surgery to compress his heart. This, followed by the transplantation, is especially tough on the tiny body of an infant patient.
It’s not easy for family members in the waiting room, either.
All over the world, scientists and researchers rely on animal models to discover more about how to detect and treat congenital heart defects—offering infants like Lincoln, and Kimmel’s son, a second chance at life. The innovations in medical devices and surgical techniques that result from this work have enabled healthcare providers to perform magic, one baby’s beating heart at a time.
Guest author: Chris Kane is a writer with a background in non-profit communications.