|18 January 2017|

USA

A soft robotic sleeve which mimics healthy cardiac muscles could inject new life into failing hearts.

With the scarcity of available donor hearts clinicians and biomedical engineers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University have spent several years developing a mechanical alternative.

Their proof of concept is reported today in Science Translational Medicine: a soft robotic sleeve that is fitted around the heart, where it twists and compresses the heart’s chambers just like healthy cardiac muscle would do.

Frank Pigula, MD, who took part in the research at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Heart Center, and his collaborators have designed a device that attaches to and snugly hugs the outside of the heart without having any contact with blood. The soft robotic sleeve mimics the heart’s natural compression motion using only non-rigid, biocompatible materials.

Their tests — done in pig hearts given their similar size and structure to human hearts — show that the device restores acutely failing hearts to 97% of their original cardiac output.

“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,” says Conor Walsh, PhD, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard SEAS and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute. Walsh, a soft robotics expert, co-led the study with Pigula.

“The soft robotic actuators are essentially artificial muscles,” says Nikolay Vasilyev, MD, a staff scientist in cardiac surgery research at Boston Children’s Hospital and co-author on the recent study. “In this sense, the robotic sleeve mimics both ventricles of the heart.”

The soft robotic heart sleeve also contains sophisticated sensing abilities that measure pressure at specific points on the heart’s surface.

The study’s first author, Ellen Roche, PhD, added: “We can independently control portions of the device and adjust assistance to a patient’s needs. I’m optimistic the soft robotic sleeve could potentially be used for short-term cardiac rehabilitation in addition to long-term therapy.”