Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Paul Iaizzo is the Visible Heart Lab's beating core

Visible heart lab
A swine heart is monitored in the Visible Heart Lab at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. January 5, 2012. The Visible Heart Lab uses reanimated mammalian hearts for research and education, and has been operating for 15 years.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The University of Minnesota's Visible Heart lab is the only place in the world where researchers can study beating hearts outside the body, and Paul Iaizzo, who runs the hi-tech facility, says it can sometimes feel as though he's working in an episode of "ER."

"Here we go," he says, as he stands near a table on which a heart sits festooned with electric wires and pumps.

"Delivering," he says as an electric shock jolts the fist-sized organ. "There we go. Got it back in one shock. We defibrillated the ventricles."

That's heart talk, and it means the heat is beating normally.

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What's not normal is that this beating heart is visible. It's been removed from a body -- a pig's body. And it's one of many that he and his colleagues use to, among other things, test chemicals that may prevent damage to the heart and other parts of the body when people have surgery. They work in the same space where the heart pacemaker was perfected, and where heart surgery pioneers developed revolutionary surgical techniques.

"I'm going to lay out some of these human heart specimens," he says as he lifts one out of a basin. It's pinkish, life sized and, well, fresh looking. And he can tell a lot just from looking at it: Hypertension caused a thickened heart wall and prevented the heart from pumping enough blood.

Other labs in the world have heart collections, but most have specimens that are long dead, dried up, and generally not in life-like condition. The Visible Heart lab, on the hand, has a collection of human hearts from transplant donors. When the organs can't be matched with waiting patients, some end up in Iaizzo's lab.

Paul Iaizzo
Paul Iaizzo explains some of the Visible Heart Lab equipment to a tour group of high school students at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. January 5, 2012. Iaizzo is a professor at the U of M and is the director of the Visible Heart Lab.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

They're in good hands. Iaizzo has completed a doctorate in physiology with post doctoral work in pharmacology and neurophysiology at the Mayo Clinc in Rochester and at the University of Minnesota. He is not a medical doctor, but he teaches medical school students, all of whom visit the lab as part of their studies. He also holds patents on some of his research and others are held by the university and by Medtronic, based on research done at the lab, and he oversees the research projects of seven doctoral and three master's degree students.

He's also been his own research subject. The thin and athletic 55-year-old is stroke survivor, a condition brought on in part by a common heart imperfection. A colleague -- a U of M heart surgeon -- fixed his heart and Iaizzo, always the scientist, studied the result.

"I actually put all the electrodes on, and we could see how the electrical properties of my heart changed."

Iaizzo made a full recovery - a beneficiary of the research advances from the lab he directs.

The University of Minnesota Visible Heart Lab is in the Mayo building on the university's East Bank campus in Minneapolis. The 16-year-old facility is funded in part by Medtronic, the Minnesota-based medical device company. Click on the audio link above to hear the latest in Dan Olson's series, "Minnesota Sounds and Voices."