Soft Robotics – Helping to Keep Hearts Pumping

A team of researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital have developed a soft robot that helps a weakened heart beat and could potentially restore normal blood flow in patients suffering from heart failure. This opens the door to a potential new treatment for people suffering from heart failure and could possibly give a patient more time in waiting for a heart transplant or eliminate the need for a transplant altogether.

Soft Robotics Heart

In this soft robotics application, the robot is made of silicone in the shape of a sleeve that fits around the heart and helps it beat by twisting and compressing in sync with the heart’s beats. An advantage of this novel approach is that unlike traditional devices used to augment the functioning of a weakened heart, this soft robot does not come in direct contact with the blood. This reduces the risk of the formation of blood clots and therefore eliminates the need for a patient to take potentially dangerous blood thinners.

The research work so far, which has been published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, describes how the soft robotics device was tested and shown to work on pigs. The pigs were made to suffer an induced cardiac arrest and the device used to maintain normal blood flow for around 15 minutes. The publication also highlights issues with the current design. Among the issues are its actuation power source, compressed air, which as can be imagined is difficult to get inside the body and difficult to make portable. A potentially more difficult and important issue however is the inflammation of the heart tissue around the area where the the device is connected. This seriously impedes long term use and patient health.

The application of soft robots is however still fairly young, as is the soft robotics field itself, and so we can expect advances in the coming years as this method is pursued. The successful application of this method to humans is still many years away but the medical benefits to heart health, and maybe the health of other organs, could be game changing.

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