Soft robotic sleeve helps the heart beat
Researchers have engineered a ‘soft robot’ that fits around the heart and helps it to beat. They hope that the technology, still under development, will be one day employed to treat heart failure in patients with weakened hearts.
The technology has been developed with a tangible issue at its core: fighting heart failure – a condition which is currently affecting more than 40 million people worldwide. In fact, while standard mechanical pumps (ventricular assist devices, VADs) are getting more and more technologically advanced, patients are still at high risk for blood cloths and stroke – the consequence of the VADs being in direct contact with the blood in the ventricles and the aorta.
The new robot, developed in a collaborative effort between scientists at Harvard University and the Boston Children’s Hospital, has been purposefully designed to overcome this issue. The device looks like a sleeve or a soft cup. It ‘hugs’ the heart and via soft pneumatic actuators it augments its cardiovascular functions by twisting and compressing in synch with the beating heart itself. The basic idea is for the robot to assist a heart weakened by failure and, unlike the aforementioned VADs, to do so without being in direct contact with the blood.
The heart-sleeve is kept in place by a combination of a suction device, sutures and a gel interface. It is tethered to an external air pump which stiffens or relaxes the heart by increasing and decreasing the pressure. Most importantly, the soft robot can be customized for each patient, for instance to support primarily one side of the heart or the other according to one’s needs.
The heart-sleeve has so far been tested only in animal-studies. Specifically, the device has been successfully used to restore normal blood flow in six female pigs whose hearts had stopped, but further research needs to be done to make the robot more suitable for long-term implantation in the body.
“This research demonstrates that the growing field of soft robotics can be applied to clinical needs and potentially reduce the burden of heart disease and improve the quality of life for patients,” said Ellen T. Roche, first author of the paper published last month in Science Translational Medicine.
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