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Science funding pays forward

France has a history of funding scientific research, calling it an investment in the economy as well as medical progress

This article first appeared in the
Débats & Opinions column in Le Monde
THE implantation of an artificial heart in a patient in December by Professor Christian Latrémouille and his team in Paris is a triple achievement: medical, because it is a world first; economic because it associates scientific research with financial and business innovation; and French, because we’re in a country more inclined to dwell on its decline than its progress.

For Professor Alain Carpentier, who created the heart, it is the end result of many years of work. It took a quarter of a century for his dream to become a reality.

We cannot overstate the merit and the tenacity of this doctor, who had already revolutionised his discipline by designing a valve which was better tolerated by patients, and who introduced the computer into the operating theatre. It also gives promise for the future: and even if we have to wait for other patients to receive and tolerate this new kind of graft to confirm its efficiency, the way from this moment on is forward.

Medical history is marked by decisive moments where pioneers took responsibility and huge risks.

We remember the first heart transplant by the South African professor, Christiaan Barnard, in 1967. The patient, Louis Washkansky, died 18 days later from pneumonia. But since then, tens of thousands have been saved by this type of transplant.

The aims are still the same: to give a heart to patients on waiting lists which are increasing dramatically, throughout the world.

It is not only a medical challenge but a business gamble as well: if the heart developed by the Carmat company fulfils its expectations, there is a potential market worth several billion euros (100,000 patients in Europe and the US, for an artificial heart worth €160,000). The investors in the company will have their audacity rewarded.

Professor Carpentier’s artificial heart is also the result of an extraordinary “Made in France” adventure. It links the head of a public hospital and a captain of industry, Jean-Luc Lagardère, chief executive of Matra, who supported the project – and also the engineers and the doctors who persisted in their collaboration after the death of their sponsor (Jean-Luc Lagardère died in suspicious circumstances in 2003).

It is also a credit to the “business angels” who helped finance it, the use of public funds with European blessing (€33million from OSEO, the French public funding organisation) and tax credits for research (€5million in 2013).

Is this the formula for other firsts? In a letter to Alain Carpentier and his colleagues, François Hollande stressed that “France could be proud of this exceptional service to human progress.” Justly proud.

But only recently, the Académie des Sciences gave a cry of alarm over reductions in credits for research. It concluded that: “Research at the highest level is the best hope for our economy.”

The artificial heart is an example of this. And it must not remain an exception.

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