This New Soft Robot Could Save Lives of People With Heart Conditions

Harvard researchers helped develop a soft robot that can wrap around a human heart to assist it beating. This could become an entirely new treatment option for people with heart conditions, including possible heart failure.

“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 the paper’s lead author Ellen T. Roche.

Image Source: Ellen Roche/Harvard University

The soft robot contracts with the heart’s beats. It boosts weaker heartbeats, adding reinforcements with each pulse. One of the best features of Harvard’s new device is that it doesn’t directly contact blood. This greatly reduces the risk of clots. It also takes patients off of dangerous blood thinners. The soft robot takes after the human heart. It has a thin silicone sleeve that uses pneumatic actuators. Those actuators replicate a mammal’s heart’s exterior muscles layers. The device does have an external pump that takes in air to power the actuators.

In the U.S. alone, 5.7 million adults have heart failure, and over half of the people who develop heart failure die within five years of that diagnosis. Heart failure medications and procedures cost the U.S. roughly $30.7 billion each year. Current treatments for heart failure come in the form of medications like ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and diuretics to reduce fluid buildup. Treatments also include healthier lifestyle changes ranging from quitting smoking to upping light physical activity.

However, the most common form of surgical treatment for extensive heart failure comes in the form of ventricular assist devices. These help blood pump from the heart directly to the body. Despite recent improvements, VADs still put the patient at risk for stroke and clotting issues.

Diagram of a VAD [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Like medications specific to each case, the robotic sleeve can be tailored to an individual’s heart. Roche said if a patient is weaker on one side than the other, the actuators can tune to provide more pressure to the weaker side. If the patient’s condition improves, the actuators can lessen allowing the heart to strengthen on its own.

Image Source: Harvard Magazine via YouTube

Roche hopes the sleeve can serve as a landmark improvement in the growing field of soft robotics:

“This research is really significant at the moment because more and more people are surviving heart attacks and ending up with heart failure. 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.”

Senior author of the paper Conor Walsh echoed Roche’s sentiments, saying the sleeve “represents an exciting proof of concept result…demonstrating that it can safely interact with soft tissue and lead to improvements in cardiac function.”

Image Source: Ellen Roche/Harvard University

The project has not yet reached human testing. The team is collaborating with surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital to determine next steps of the project. According to reports, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development looks to pursue “commercialization opportunities.”

For more information on how current VAD systems work, you can check out this video below from Barnes-Jewish Hospital:


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