Robot Wrapped Around the Heart Helps it Beat

A customisable soft robot that wraps around the pumping organ, protecting from heart failure, has been developed by a team of researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. Their findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.

Using a soft robot to help a heart beat. Photo credits: Ellen Roche/Harvard SEAS

All it does is fit around the heart to assist it in doing its job—beating life. Fastening the robot sleeve onto the heart requires a suction device, sutures, and a gel interface. The device might become a means for more treatment options for heart failure patients.

“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,” says first author Ellen T. Roche.

The robot sleeve twists and contracts in synchrony with a beating heart. It boosts the function of the cardiovascular system which decreases in strength because of heart failure. What makes it different from other devices developed to serve the same purpose is that it is not in direct contact with blood—this comes as a great advantage as the risks of clotting and stroke are reduced, and additionally, the patient would not have to be medicated with blood-thinners. Senior author Conor Walsh explains that their robot interacts in a safe manner with the delicate tissues with which it is in contact.

The sleeve is thin, made of silicone, and bears soft pneumatic actuators that surround the heart, mimicking the latter’s outer muscles. The actuators are powered by an external pump which is tied to the device, and they twist the sleeve, causing it to contract, just like a beating heart does.

The robot can be built to fit any patient’s needs. For instance, someone needing more assistance in any one side of the heart will have the actuators adjusted to do the job. The pressure of the device can also vary, as per the requirements.

The team is positive that their device will soon have beneficial uses.

“We envision many other future applications where such devices can delivery mechanotherapy both inside and outside of the body,” says Conor Walsh.

The sleeve has not yet been used in humans. Rather, it was tested on animal models, and more research is needed to perform a safe implant in human subjects.

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