Peer Portner, pioneer in heart pump surgery at Stanford, dies at 69

STANFORD, Calif. - Peer Portner, PhD, pioneer of the first implanted electric heart assist pump for patients with terminal heart failure, died Monday, Feb. 9, from cancer at his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was 69 years old.

Internationally known for his life-long work in developing mechanical heart-assist devices, Portner, consulting professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, developed the left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, which made history in 1984 when it kept a gravely ill heart patient alive mechanically for eight days until a heart was available for transplantation. Never before had such a device been successfully implanted in a human being.

"There is nobody who approached his stature in this field," said Philip Oyer, MD, the Roy B. Cohn-Theodore A. Falasco Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford. Oyer was the surgeon who implanted the first LVAD into the chest of 51-year-old Robert St. Laurent on Sept. 5, 1984. St. Laurent came to Stanford Hospital following a heart attack and a coronary bypass operation that proved unsuccessful. Eight days after Oyer placed the device in his chest, he received the heart of an 18-year-old college student who had become brain dead after a car accident.

Portner became personal friends with St. Laurent, who was one of the longest living heart transplant survivors. St. Laurent died in 2004.

"Peer was incredibly knowledgeable about the entire field," Oyer said. "He knew and was respected by practically every surgeon, cardiologist and research engineer who was involved in the development and use of mechanical support devices, worldwide."

Oyer was working as a resident at Stanford in the lab of Norman Shumway, MD, PhD, the father of heart transplantation, in the early 1970s when he first met Portner, who had founded a small company, Novacor Medical Corp., which was embarking on developing the LVAD. "He contacted us and asked us if we wanted to do some laboratory testing," Oyer said. Thus began Stanford's working relationship with Portner, which would continue for more than 30 years.

"He was a mentor to many people around the world, from world-class surgeons to medical students," said Robert Robbins, MD, chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. "He had incredible insight into these cardiac assist devices, their designs, their reliability and which patients were appropriate for the devices. He had amazing overall knowledge of their use.

"He was a great voice of advice to me and others here," Robbins added. "His contribution to our department for more than three decades was invaluable."

Born in Kenya, Portner received his undergraduate and graduate education at McGill University in Montreal. From there he went to Oxford University in England where he was a National Research Council Fellow. He was a nuclear physicist at that time, but his ambition was to make a difference in medicine.

For more than three decades, Portner established and led a multidisciplinary team in the development of the Novacor Left Ventricular Assist System, or LVAS. Since starting investigation and development of the device at Stanford in the 1970s, the Novacor heart assist system has expanded around the world to more than 100 medical centers in more than 20 countries.

Owned today by World Heart Corporation, the LVAS has been used in more than 1,800 patients with life-threatening heart failure. The current wearable configuration, introduced in 1993, has allowed patients to leave the hospital and return to an essentially normal lifestyle. Implant durations continue to increase, the longest reaching six years.

Ventricular assist devices should not be confused with artificial hearts, which are implanted into the body to replace the biological heart. By contrast, the ventricular assist devices are pumps that assist the heart but don't replace it.

Portner is survived by his wife, two daughters and three grandchildren. Memorial contributions may be sent to a scholarship fund in Portner's name at The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, where Portner was made a fellow, at 2301 Vine St., Berkeley, CA 94708.

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