FRANCE: Millions in funding for artificial heart

The European Commission has authorised funding of EUR33 million by the French government to the Carmat artificial heart research and development programme. The commission ruled the award complied with the European Union's fair competition rules.

Under the rules the commission can use a veto to stop a member government making large funding grants to its nationals to ensure they do not give an unfair advantage to that country (that is, to prevent unfair competition). In this case, the commission decided France could provide the funding because it was compatible with its "R&D framework".

The start-up Carmat SAS is the lead company for the project to design and develop a fully implantable artificial heart and the associated electrical supply and telediagnostic systems. Carmat is backed by four industrial partners and a large number of small and medium sized subcontracting companies.

French cardiac specialist Professor Alain Carpentier spent 15 years developing the prototype battery-operated heart in collaboration with the EADS industrial group.

After examining the programme, the commission said it was compatible with its R&D&I framework - in particular it remedied a market failure and would have a positive impact, especially in the public health sector, without significantly altering competition conditions.

The five-year programme will involve a total of about EUR74 million of eligible expenditure. Carmat will receive EUR31 million from the French state innovation agency Oséo., including EUR14.5 million in refundable advances. The other partners will receive smaller amounts from Oséo which did not need commission approval.

The commission said the Carmat programme would provide a major boost to public health, with the cost of treating advanced heart failure significantly lower than with a heart transplant. It should improve patients' quality of life as it did not involve extensive immunosuppressive treatments. The dissemination of knowledge would have a positive impact on other medical applications such as use of biosynthetic materials.

"The free play of market forces would never have provided the incentive for spontaneous investment in these extremely risky technologies where the outcome is very uncertain," said the commission. Any distortions in competition arising from state aid would remain limited, it said.