In 1958, a Cambridge University-educated electrical engineer made history when he developed the first battery-powered external pacemaker at the Shaio Heart Foundation in Bogotá. His first patient was a Colombian priest, who had his life extended 17 years thanks to Dr. Jorge Reynolds’ “totally homemade” apparatus.

Reynolds’ pacemaker would go on to become a widely-used device in hospitals around the world. There were no other options on the market for treating irregular heart conditions.

Today, some 40 pacemakers which Reynolds developed are permanently on display at the Shaio clinic. Visitors can appreciate how they gradually reduced in size from that of a car battery, connected to a patient with cables, to a matchbox and smaller.

“They did their job, but as technology advanced they had to keep changing.”

“They were very precarious,” states Reynolds. “They did their job, but as technology advanced they had to keep changing.”

The pacemaker’s battery life also got extended over time and most now operate for eight years without replacement. Inserting them has also become a relatively-fast medical procedure. Most patients go home within 24 hours.

Reynolds became a heart expert not through medicine, but electronics. Seeing how many patients turned up at the Shaio with arrhythmia and short life expectancies, he applied his knowledge to expanding the pacemaker’s possibilities. Surgeon Dr. Alberto Bejarano went ahead an implanted them.

Dr. Jorge Reynolds in the lab
Dr. Reynolds continues to oversee research on pacemakers and nanotechnology. (Richard Emblin)

Even though Reynolds was the father of the pacemaker and early models were manufactured in Bogotá, mass production overseas soon became the norm.

“Colombia is not interested in the investigation of pacemakers,” claims Reynolds. “But, I’ve never abandoned it.”

Born in 1936 in Bogotá, Reynolds finished his schooling in the capital and entered Cambridge in 1953. He was part of the first graduating class of electrical engineers in Europe.

Reynolds returned home with a degree, but “nobody understood what it meant. It either had to do with the atomic bomb or someone who knows how to fix a steam iron.”

Electricity at the heart of humanity

The cardiology unit of the Universidad Nacional received the first batch of specialized equipment for heart research in Colombia.

Reynolds was asked to participate in that research alongside medical teams. Through their research they were able to confirm that the heart’s function is purely electrical. Pulses and signals could eliminate ventricular blockages and synchronize the vital organ’s rhythm.

Electronics is now widely applied in medicine via robotics, tissue engineering, stem cell research and partial wave spectroscopy, among other uses. Pacemakers have been developed for patients suffering from a wide range of health conditions – from hypertension to Parkinson’s.

After the landmark scientific development of the pacemaker, Dr. Reynolds began to monitor the hearts of Humpback whales in their oceanic habitat.

Exploring the world’s largest hearts

A whale’s heart is far larger than that of a human, weighing close to two tons, extending the length of a car and pumping 1000 liters of blood with every contraction. But the Humpback is a distant relative to us, having existed on land before developing fins and a tail. A whale heart and a human heart are almost identical in structure with four chambers consisting of the upper atria and lower ventricles.

The Colombian researcher has amassed thousands of hours of heartbeat recordings, including everything from mosquitos to elephants. But the mysteries of the whale’s heart, the largest of any animal on our planet, became Reynolds’ life’s work.

With the help of Captain Francisco Ospina Navia of the Rodadero Aquarium, Reynolds embarked on many expeditions along the Pacific coast, extending from Patagonia to Alaska’s Aleutian islands. His mission: to listen in on the hearts of migrating whales.

Ospina and Reynolds worked together for 28 years, and the Colombian Navy went so far as to lend them a submarine.

The work was challenging. “We had to filter the whale song from the heart beat, just like any doctor.”

More than century before nanotechnology became one of the most significant developments of the 20th century, Walt Whitman wrote in his epic poem “Leaves of Grass” that “I sing the body electric.” Inspired by the novelty of electricity, which powered locomotives, streetlights and Alexander Graham Bell’s practical telephone, Whitman’s grasp of power continues to ring true.

From the macroscopic to the microscopic

Our iPhones today, plug into our laptops, connect to the web and store our information in a server – all in an electronic world.

And nanotechnology continues to influence our lives and push the limits of the digital world. It will change the pacemaker forever, and its place next to the heart.

At the turn of the millennium, Reynolds began thinking how nanotechnology could be applied to his pacemakers. He designed a prototype, and in 2007 formally began to develop a working model.

This year, he was given authorization from Colombian health authorities to implant a nano pacemaker “one-fourth the size of a grain of rice” in a patient. The procedure, however, will most likely be done in Europe.

This surgery-free alternative represents another landmark in the development of the pacemaker and yet another milestone in the life of the Colombian researcher.

Microchip giant Intel is working closely with Dr. Reynolds on the nano elements of his new pacemaker and production is underway in Asia.

“It’s a question of months, or days, until we have the first patient with this technology,” affirms Reynolds. And if everything goes according to schedule, millions of hearts around the world could beat into the future thanks to “a very Colombian idea.”

The doctor, however, is critical of the government’s lack of interest in funding Colombia’s research potential.

“Science and technology don’t vote. Even though many researchers here do exceptional work, many more have had to leave.”

“Science and technology don’t vote. Even though many researchers here do exceptional work, many more have had to leave,” states Reynolds. And given very restricted resources for development, Reynold’s chip-powered hearts must survive the “brain drain.”

Even though a whale’s heart and a nano chip are oceans apart, there is a connection.

First and foremost, Colombia prides itself as a tourism destination for an annual whale-watching spectacle. Whales have become an emblem of the country’s rich biodiversity and “a field of infinite study,” states Reynolds as a finite, nano-engineered pacemaker prepares to roll out of the laboratory.

Cardiac devices are a medical necessity for millions around the world, and a 2009 survey shows those numbers growing. Cardiovascular risk is directly related to diet, air quality and lifestyle. Stress is a known killer.

Once Dr. Reynolds’ very Colombian nano mechanism is implanted in patients across Europe, the U.S and Asia, it will be available in Colombia. The price of the device will also dramatically reduce from the current USD $12,000 per unit to $1,500.

Dr. Reynolds’ groundbreaking technology will also permit doctors to monitor heart function from a cell phone, powered not by battery but the muscle’s own electrical signals. It’s a relationship of equals: biology in synch with technology.

“Nano technology is a revolution like that of the wheel and the transistor,” affirms Reynolds.

As our technology horizons keep expanding, Reynolds recalls the ocean, and how he monitored the beating hearts of giants. From the liquid void of whales’ habitat to micro surgery, Reynolds has studied the intangible and the invisible.

Yet during 60 years of work, he has never strayed from his original focus on sharing scientific knowledge with the world. And a journey which began with a mammal more than 70 million-years-old is far from over.

“I think I have contributed to the whale, not as a spectacle, but as a creature which lives for the benefit of mankind,” states the pioneer of many an electric heart.