Soft robot ‘hugs’ your heart to keep it pumping

Scientists have created an easy-to-customize soft robot that fits around a human heart and helps it beat, according to a new report in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The mechanical sleeve could open up new medical possibilities for people struggling with heart problems, the study’s authors noted.

The supple robotic sleeve twists and squeezes in sync with a beating heart, enhancing cardiovascular functions destabilized by heart failure. Unlike other devices that help heart function, the robotic sleeve does not directly touch blood. This feature cuts down on the risk of clotting and reduces the requirement for potentially dangerous blood thinner drugs. The team behind the device said it may eventually be capable of keeping a patient alive until a transplant operation, or it could help in cardiac rehabilitation.

“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,” study author Ellen T. Roche, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland, said in a news release.

Soft Tissue Proof of Concept

The new paper describes a proof of concept, showing it can properly interact with soft tissue and result in enhancements in cardiac function.

“We envision many other future applications where such devices can delivery mechanotherapy both inside and outside of the body,” said co-author Conor Walsh, an associate professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard.

To produce a completely new device, scientists drew inspiration from the heart itself. The slender silicone sleeve makes use of soft pneumatic actuators positioned around the heart to imitate exterior muscle layers of the mammalian heart. The actuators distort and constrict the sleeve in a motion comparable to a beating heart. The device is connected to an external pump, which uses air to manipulate the actuators. The sleeve is coupled to the heart with a suction device, sutures, and a gel interface, used to reduce unwanted friction.

The sleeve can be personalized for each patient. So if someone has more weakness on one side of the heart, the actuators can be adjusted to offer more support on that side. The pressure of the actuators can also elevate or decrease over time, according to need.

“This research is really significant at the moment because more and more people are surviving heart attacks and ending up with heart failure,” Roche said. “Soft robotic devices are ideally suited to interact with soft tissue and give assistance that can help with augmentation of function, and potentially even healing and recovery.”


Image credit: Roche et al., Science Translational Medicine (2017)

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