Self-winding technology developed by Swiss watchmakers in the 18th century could be used in pacemakers, sparing cardiac patients painful surgeries to change batteries.
The principle of automatic clockwork developed by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet in 1777 is now being studied by Adrian Zurbuchen of the University of Bern's cardiovascular engineering group.
Zurbuchen hopes his study, which is only in early stages, could eventually make the lives of cardiac patients easier.
"This is a feasibility study. We have shown that it is possible to pace the heart using the power of its own motion," Zurbuchen said at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Barcelona on Sunday.
Zurbuchen and his team have tested the device on pigs, successfully regulating their heartbeat to a steady 130 beats per minute.
Current pacemakers, which help the heart beat more regularly, offer a lifeline for many patients with cardiac problems but the need for battery power is a limiting factor, since replacing them requires a surgical intervention.
In the same way that an automatic watch winds itself when it moves on the wrist, the clockwork pacemaker generates electrical current using the movement of the heart muscle. To do this, it is stitched directly on to the pulsating heart.
Other researchers are investigating ways to get rid of batteries in pacemakers by transmitting power through the body from an external source - but the idea of using clockwork is novel.
Automatic watches work because they have an eccentric weight that pivots when the wearer's arm moves. This rotation progressively winds a spring that then turns the watch mechanism. In the new Swiss pacemaker, the mechanical spring unwinds to spin an electrical micro-generator.