Inventor of Impella medical device has advice for new grads in science : Shots - Health News When Thorsten Siess was in graduate school, he came up with the idea for a heart device that's now been used in hundreds of thousands of patients around the world.

He invented a successful medical device as a student. Here's his advice for new grads

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It's graduation season at colleges and universities across the country, and for many graduates, post-campus life can seem daunting. But sometimes a school project can pave the way for a surprisingly successful career. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin reports on one inventor's story and his advice to newly minted grads.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: When Thorsten Siess was a student at the University of Aachen in Germany, he had an idea for a new kind of pump to help people with damaged hearts. What if a device could pump blood at the tip of a catheter?

THORSTEN SIESS: This would be able to be put into patients and support patients without the need for a major operation. Normally, of course, you would have to split the sternum, which means you really go on a heart-lung machine or have very invasive support, but that usually takes a lot of time.

LUPKIN: Today, Siess is the chief technology officer of Abiomed, now part of Johnson and Johnson, which has made his idea a reality in helping patients around the world. But back in the 1990s, it was just a dream. After meeting a professor he described as a cool dude, Siess got busy writing grants to get him through his PhD and then founded a startup to make the heart pump that would eventually be called the Impella. The device temporarily helps pump blood for the heart during surgery or following a heart attack.

SIESS: Some of our patients now we call them high risk. They are patients that already had prior surgery and prior interventions, and they are considered to be so high risk that none of the treating physicians would usually touch them.

LUPKIN: The Impella is inserted through an artery in the patient's leg and guided up to the heart. The device uses a tiny spinning turbine that is powerful enough to pull blood into the heart and then push it out into the rest of the body. But it's also gentle enough not to burst red blood cells. In the beginning, Siess says it didn't look like much.

SIESS: Don't be disappointed that the first things don't work as intended. They don't look nice, but see the potential of what you're doing.

LUPKIN: Ignoring initial appearances is part of his advice to aspiring inventors and new grads. He also stressed the importance of teamwork and doing something that you're passionate about. To be sure, there are still risks and benefits when it comes to the Impella. Earlier this year, Abiomed conducted a recall to update the instructions for the device because the company had received reports of it perforating part of the heart in some patients. However, people were more likely to survive with the Impella than without it after serious heart attacks that compromised blood flow, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month. But the study also found that patients who received the pump were more likely to have complications. That's likely because these patients are sick and often need things like CPR, which is complicated with a device inside the heart, says Dr. Richard Kovacs, chief medical officer of the American College of Cardiology.

RICHARD KOVACS: It's been an improvement in our care, but it's a tool in our tool box.

LUPKIN: As for Siess, he says he remembers graduation day as a wonderful time. He had already started his company and believed in the Impella, but nothing was certain yet.

SIESS: Had I not had the grit, the perseverance and the belief that this is going to make a difference in patient lives, I'm not sure that I would have survived the program.

LUPKIN: Still, he never imagined the device would someday be used in more than 300,000 people worldwide.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR News.

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