To help keep failing hearts beating inside the body, scientists have developed a soft robotic sleeve to place the organ in that allows it to maintain function. The research, published in Science Translational Medicine, has so far been trialed in pigs, but it is hoped that one day it could be used in a medical setting to reduce infection and clotting.
The problem with the current solution to a failing heart is that it requires the implant of artificial valves and pumps directly into the organ. With such tech coming into direct contact with the blood and muscle, it can lead to infection and clotting, producing potentially lethal results. The beauty of this latest device is that the soft robotic sheath effectively goes round the outside of the heart, aiding in keeping the struggling organ beating while reducing the amount of danger.
“This work represents an exciting proof of concept result for this soft robot, demonstrating that it can safely interact with soft tissue and lead to improvements in cardiac function,” explained senior author Conor Walsh. “We envision many other future applications where such devices can deliver mechanotherapy both inside and outside of the body.”
The sleeve in use on a pig model. Ellen Rouche/Harvard SEAS
The artificial sleeve works in effect by mimicking the outer layer of heart muscle. It helps the heart pump by applying alternate pressure and suction, driven by pressurized air. Built from a silicon material, it is soft and flexible, allowing it to squeeze and twist at the same time, providing a similar motion to that of a beating heart.
Because the device requires pressurized air for it to work, it would only be a temporary fix as the patient would need to be situated near pumps, but it could be used to keep patients going until a more permanent fix is administered, or the heart recovers sufficiently by itself. The amount of pressure that the sleeve administers can be adjusted, allowing doctors to increase or decrease the assistance over time as the patient’s condition changes.
The sleeve could have a few different applications. It could be used to keep a patient’s heart pumping, for example, as they wait for a transplant to replace the damaged organ, or it could be used to help other aid in cardiac recovery, whose heart may not be working at full capacity. The ability to make the implants customizable, in that it can be tailored to provide more pressure on certain parts of the heart that might be weakest, means that the patient will get the best support possible.