New Soft Robot can Help you Beat your Heart Normally

A team of investigators has developed a robotic sleeve able of artificially resembling the muscles of the heart. This new technology could be a life saver for people with heart failure waiting for transplant.

Image Credit: Ellen Rouche/Harvard SEAS
Image Credit: Ellen Rouche/Harvard SEAS

Heart failure takes place when either of the heart’s ventricles can no more accomplish their duty of pumping blood around the body.

The waiting list for heart transplants is long, and many individuals die prior to a donor is found. Developing ways to increase lives while sufferers wait for a new organ is therefore a concern.

Presently, ventricular assist devices (VADs) can be used to enhance the health of sufferers with end-stage heart failure looking forward to a transplant. On the other hand, they are not ideal.

VADs work by pumping blood from the heart and moving it around the body. To operate, the blood has to leave the confines of the blood vessels and travel through tubes and rotors.

Due to this contact with foreign material, the sufferer has to take anticoagulants. These medicines can make VADs a viable solution, but they also raise the risk of stroke by 20 %.

Apart from VADs, cardiac sleeves are one more choice; they sit around the heart and squeeze it to be able to duplicate muscular contractions. These heart compression interventions are also far from perfect and, till recently, had been all but abandoned.

A new age of robots

Dr. Frank Pigula, who taken part in the research at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts – describes that: “The cardiac field had turned far away from the idea of developing heart compression rather than blood-pumping VADs because of technological restrictions. But now, with progress in soft robotics, it’s time to turn back.”

This week, a new proof of concept – presented in the journal Science Translational Medicine – re-opens the gates to heart compression devices. A team of biomedical engineers and physicians from Harvard in Cambridge, MA, and Boston Children’s Hospital has developed and tested a robotic sleeve that twists and compresses the heart in the same way that healthy ventricles would.

Even though the classical image of a robot is a solid structure able of withstanding interstellar warfare, the robots of modern medical research are the polar opposite. Made from elastomers, fibers, and other filler materials, a new wave of what is known as soft robots are capable to communicate very well and delicately with human anatomy.

Made specifically from non-rigid, biocompatible materials, this innovative cardiac sleeve sits external of the heart, getting rid of the need for anticoagulants while reducing infection risks. It uses pneumatically powered “air muscles,” known as actuators.

With respect to Dr. Nikolay Vasilyev, co-author of the current paper: “The soft robotic actuators are basically artificial muscles.” The thin silicon sleeve is tethered to an exterior pump that uses air to power the actuators.

One section of the sleeve twists and the other squeezes, resembling both ventricles of the heart. Previously cardiac sleeves were restricted in that they could only squeeze.

Soft robot’s lifesaving potential

The study’s initial author, Ellen Roche states that: “We can independently control sections of the device and adjust support to a patient’s requires.” So, if one side of a sufferer’s heart is sluggish, it can be modified consequently.

She continues: “I’m positive the soft robotic sleeve could possibly be used for short term cardiac rehabilitation in-addition to long-term therapy.”

The study teams recently presented their research on pigs, in which they induced cardiac arrest in the animals then equipped the robotic device. They were capable to show the sleeve’s capability to restore the heart to 97 % of its original cardiac output.

Commenting on their study study co-leader Conor Walsh siad,

“This work shows an interesting proof-of-concept result for this soft robot, indicating that it can safely interact with soft tissue and result in improvements in cardiac function.”