This past December, I attended a dinner and sat next to a delightful young woman named Vanessa Cirillo. Vanessa had an incredible joie de vivre, a striking smile and she was wearing a beautiful evening dress with a plunging neckline (okay, I know this is a strange way to start a blog post but stick with me here…).
Why do I remember her neckline? Because Vanessa had a big, thick beautiful scar running right down the center of her chest. Why? Well at age 20, Vanessa had suffered a heart attack caused by a virus. She recovered and lived a healthy life until June 2007, when her heart condition became critical. Her heart had enlarged several times its normal size (cardiomyopathy). It was no longer pumping enough blood to sustain her body and she was suffering from biventricular heart failure. She needed a heart transplant but no matching donor heart was available. On Aug. 10, 2007, Dr. Jack Copeland removed Vanessa’s dying heart and implanted an artificial heart to keep Vanessa alive until a matching donor heart could be found. After over 100 days in the hospital, being kept alive by the artificial heart, a donor heart that matched Vanessa’s particular needs became available and she underwent successful heart transplant surgery. Today, she is living a completely happy and healthy life. Were it not for the artificial heart, she might not be here today.
The artificial heart that probably saved Vanessa’s life is called the CardioWest temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH-t) and is made by SynCardia, the newest member of our investment portfolio. The man who implanted the TAH-t in Vanessa is Dr. Jack Copeland, co-founder of the company. SynCardia’s Artificial Heart is the modern version of the Jarvik 7 artificial heart first implanted into Barney Clark in 1982. It is the only FDA and CE approved Total Artificial Heart in the world. It is used as a bridge-to-heart transplant device for transplant eligible patients dying from end-stage biventricular heart failure.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined. According to the American Heart Association, there are more than five million cases of heart failure in the U.S., with 550,000 newly diagnosed cases of congestive heart failure each year. These cases are treated with anything from better diet, exercise & drugs (mild) to stents, surgeries and other treatments (serious) to various mechanical circulatory support devices that are implanted in the patient (severe). One thing is certain: congestive heart failure is not curable, the only thing you can do is slow the rate at which your heart is decaying. Additionally, the macro trends of obesity, lack of exercise and poor eating habits are all direct contributors to the rising rate of heart failure.
When there are no other treatments or solutions available and a patient’s heart is literally dying, they can become candidates for heart transplants. The criteria to become eligible are clear: The patient must have an irreparably damaged heart, be facing imminent death, and must have otherwise viable vital organs. Even under these strict criteria, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 Americans would benefit from a transplant each year. However, fewer than 8,000 are ever placed on the national transplant waiting list, and only 2,000 to 2,500 hearts become available for transplantation each year. Most patients spend months or years waiting for a suitable donor heart and die before one becomes available.
SynCardia aims to change all that. The Company ha applied for a Eurpoean marketing license and a US clinical study of the 12-lb a portable Freedom discharge driver that will allow a patient to leave the hospital and return to a somewhat normal life while implanted with the Artificial Heart. The driver will be worn in a backpack and allow patients to be discharged from the hospital while awaiting a human heart transplant. My partners and I believe that with the release of the Freedom driver, SynCardia can dramatically change the lives of tens of thousands of people worldwide who are suffering from congestive heart failure.
We are very excited about our latest investment in SynCardia and I’m honored to have joined the board of directors. The company has a very compelling mission and is made up of a tremendous group of people that are particularly purpose-driven. During one of my diligence visits to the company, I participated in their weekly all-hands Friday lunch. After all 30+ employees in the company described their individual progress that week (take note startups, this is a great practice), it was announced that a young man was undergoing an Artificial Heart implant that day. The man’s story was shared with the whole company and needless to say, it was quite moving and helps to foster one of the most unique cultures I’ve seen in a company.
As an added bonus, with a goal of promoting cardiovascular health, co-founder Dr. Marvin Slepian has assembled a SynCardia cycling team. The team consists of friends and supporters of the mission of SynCardia and represents a wide cross-section of riders including Bill Wohl, an Artificial Heart recipient who later received a heart transplant and has been an avid cyclist for years. Each year the team rides in the annual 109 mile El Tour de Tucson and when Dr. Slepian learned I was a cyclist, he invited me to join the team. I’m greatly looking forward to competing with the team in November.
If you’re as fascinated by SynCardia as I am, you’ll probably enjoy spending some time in their video center where you can see videos of some of the inspiring stories.