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A 'village boy' from Iran’s Hamadan who earned global fame for scientific feats

By Maryam Qarehgozlou

Prof. Tofy Mussivand, an Iranian scientist and medical engineer, best known for his pioneering role in developing an artificial heart, passed away recently at the age of 81 in Canada.

Mussivand, the Chair and Director of the Cardiovascular Devices Program at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute for more than three decades, was a force behind major discoveries and breakthroughs, including the world’s firsts and leading technologies in the field of medicine.

“Professor Mussivand was an internationally acclaimed and renowned scientist, problem solver, educator, humanitarian and inventor,” the University of Ottawa Heart Institute said in a statement after the acclaimed scientist passed away.

The statement lauded Mussivand as an “inspiring leader” who through sustained creative innovations, hard work and perseverance became one of the world’s most respected scientists.

“Prof. Mussivand’s scientific excellence has led to significant and meaningful contributions to the accumulation, transfer and dissemination of scientific knowledge, technologies and products for utilization. These contributions have shaped the present and future of medical devices and provided major impacts on health care globally,” the University of Ottawa Heart Institute said.

Mussivand was born into a small family in Varkaneh village in the northwestern province of Hamedan in 1942 and had to struggle to earn a name and fame for himself.

In media interviews, he often narrated his humble story as a shepherd in the highlands of his native hometown, learning to read and write by the light of a kerosene lamp.

“At night we used to go on the roof of the house in the summer and stare at the stars. I asked, ‘Why is that, why am I here, what’s my purpose, how is the world created,’” he said in an interview with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) when he visited Iran after 37 years.

“I was bothering my father with these questions, but he could not answer. Eventually, he got tired of me asking … He put me in a school.”

He finished fourth grade at a primary school in Varkaneh, but the absence of a secondary school in his small village forced him to embark on a daily journey to the nearby city.

Within six months after attending the fifth grade, the village boy who was bullied at school for wearing shabby clothes achieved the highest marks among his peers and became the top student.

“Living in the village, the pastoral life, farming and gardening, the beautiful night sky, and the hard work had all affected me, that’s why throughout these years I worked tirelessly and despite several defeats, I have never given up,” he was quoted as saying.

Mussivand pursued an undergraduate course in engineering from the University of Tehran and a graduate program in the same field at the University of Alberta in Canada on scholarship in 1964.

He knew only two words of English —“yes” and “no” — and got a job as a dishwasher to scratch a living.

Later, following successful years in the fields of engineering and management and serving in senior positions in government, crown corporations and the private sector, at the age of 37, he developed a great fondness for medicine.

The young man from Hamadan received his doctorate in Medical Engineering and Medical Sciences from the University of Akron and Northeastern Ohio University College of Medicine.

Thereafter, he joined the internationally acclaimed Cleveland Clinic Hospital and Research Foundation, where he gained invaluable knowledge and experience in the development of medical devices, artificial hearts and cardiac care.

In 1989, he was invited to return to Canada to continue his pioneering work in the field of medical devices.

“Dr. Mussivand has achieved national and global recognition. His breakthroughs have resulted in prominently situating Canada in the fields of medical devices, artificial hearts, remote power transfer, and in situ sterilization,” the University of Ottawa Heart Institute wrote.

According to the University of Ottawa, Mussivand’s leadership resulted in the creation of over 1,000 man-years in the Canadian workforce and has been the catalyst for an influx of more than $600 million, primarily from outside Canada, during the past 10 years.

Thanks to his multidisciplinary background, he pioneered 36 major discoveries which included 12 world’s firsts and leading technologies.

Mussivand has been hailed as a world leader in artificial hearts and enabling technologies that are intended as a bridge to transplantation.

He pioneered the development of the first pulsatile ventricular assist device that is implantable (in the chest) and takes over the heart’s pumping action until a donor heart is available for transplantation.

The device can be remotely powered, monitored, and controlled; therefore, after patients recover from surgery, they do not have to remain hospitalized.

A 2020 research showed that a left ventricular assist device, an artificial heart taking over the function of the native heart when the left ventricle fails, can keep people alive for up to six years.

It shows that around 80–85 percent of patients are alive 12 months after having an artificial heart implanted; whilst up to three quarter survive for two years.

This timeframe may just be what is needed for them to wait for a heart transplant.

Mussivand also pioneered a novel method to optimize the design of blood-conducting devices, like artificial hearts, to prevent blood clots in patients. It is now a standardized procedure adopted worldwide.

He was the first person to accomplish transatlantic transfer of patient’s heart data and demonstrated the world’s first such technology at the G7 summit in Brussels and also in Tokyo.

He successfully developed a method and devices to rapidly sample and extract DNA from fingerprints in 15 minutes.

Mussivand also conceived a novel approach and device to reduce or eliminate medical device infections, a significant breakthrough that could dramatically reduce human suffering and the cost of infections with implantable medical devices and resolve a major challenge it poses to the healthcare systems.

A selected number of his inventions have been exhibited in various museums around the world including the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the London Science Museum in England, Juno Beach Centre in France, and the International Centre for Medical Technologies in Texas, USA.

He served in senior roles in several top scientific journals in his field such as the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation, The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, and others.

By establishing an advanced patient simulation center, Mussivand trained over 600 students and directed advanced training of 6,000 healthcare professionals.

He published over 500 books, papers, technical reports, and editorials and received numerous national and international awards and honors for his achievements as a great innovator.

Mussivand who pioneered procedures, guidelines and devices that saved countless lives passed away on January 7 following a long battle with several serious illnesses.

In an interview following a visit to his hometown, Varkaneh village, he said he would never forget how his life journey began.

“Recalling my childhood calms me, my childhood memories, shepherding, and the moonlit nights help me relax in the modern, complex world, they draw me closer to God.”

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