Study: Second life possible for pacemaker harvested from autopsy

Would you recycle a pacemaker from an autopsy, and use it in someone else? A new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and highlighted in Reuters concludes the practice could be feasible, offering a way to help heart patients in the developing world who could otherwise not afford the devices.

But the study, published in The American Journal of Cardiology, didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from manufacturers of implantable pacemakers. Both Medtronic ($MDT) and St. Jude Medical ($STJ) emailed statements to Reuters emphasizing they worry about cleanliness and sterilization if implantable pacers were to be recycled, and don't support reusing or reprocessing them as a result.

Instead, both devicemakers say they focus on donating new devices to global charities, enabling patients in the developing world to obtain the implanted devices if they need them. That said, a Medtronic spokesperson told Reuters that the company does endorse "the return of devices for evaluation and tracking, including those explanted in funeral homes." The FDA backs them up. The agency has only approved pacemakers and ICDs for single use, though single-use devices can be approved for reuse if they can be proven to be both safe and effective after reprocessing. That hasn't happened yet for pacemakers or ICDs, Reuters explains.

Researchers looked at 334 autopsies performed at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia between February 2009 and July 20011, and identified 27 where pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators were removed, or explanted. Of that amount, 8 could have kept running with at least four more years of battery life, suggesting the devices could still help patients that need them.

Studies looking at reusing pacemakers in new patients aren't new, as Reuters notes. But previous researchers have focused instead on drawing a supply of these devices from patients whose implants were upgraded, and from funeral homes before a patient was buried. The researchers, led by Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania fellow Dr. Payman Zamani, concluded that hospital morgues could serve as another source for used devices that still have enough battery juice to help someone else.

If the process could be done safely, it could arguably give patients access to a device that may otherwise be too costly for them. Between one million and two million people die around the world each year because they could not access or afford a pacemaker implant, Reuters notes. In the U.S., the implant can cost $5,000, according to the news agency, excluding the cost of surgery, hospital stay and follow-up care.

- read the Reuters story
- here's the journal abstract