The researchers claim that the soft robot has advantages over the heart assist devices such as VADs that are out there because the sleeve never directly comes in contact with blood. That means that there is no risk of blood clotting, or the need for those with the sleeve implanted in them to take blood thinner medications.
“The cardiac field had turned away from idea of developing heart compression instead of blood-pumping VADs due to technological limitations, but now with advancements in soft robotics it’s time to turn back,” Frank Pigula, a cardiothoracic surgeon who was co-corresponding author on the study, said in a Harvard news release.
“Most people with heart failure do still have some function left; one day the robotic sleeve may help their heart work well enough that their quality of life can be restored,” said Pigula, former clinical director of pediatric cardiac surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital and presently a University of Louisville faculty member and pediatric cardiac surgery division chief at Norton Children’s Hospital.
The researchers have so far demonstrated the robotic sleeve’s ability to support heart function in pigs with acute heart failure. The device will require more study before it is tried out in humans, but Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has already filed a patent application and is seeking commercialization opportunities.
“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,” said Ellen T. Roche, the paper’s first author and former Harvard engineering PhD student. Roche is presently a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway.
The researchers—based out of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Harvard’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering and Boston Children’s Hospital—published their work in Science Translational Medicine.
“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. We envision many other future applications where such devices can delivery mechanotherapy both inside and outside of the body,” said Conor Walsh, Harvard engineering professor and senior author of the paper.
The researchers drew inspiration from the heart itself while designing the robotic device. They created a thin silicone sleeve that relies on soft pneumatic actuators around the heart to mimic the organ’s outermost muscle layers. They designed the actuators to twist and compress the sleeve in much the same way that a beating heart normally moves. An external pump uses air to provide power for the actuators.
“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.”
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