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This Soft Robot Hugs the Heart and Helps It Beat

A new device uses compressed air to help damaged hearts pump blood, which could help 5.7 million people diagnosed with heart failure in the US each year.

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Carla Schaffer/AAAS

A team of engineers and physicians has developed a soft robot implant that hugs the heart and helps it to pump.

Made from specially prepared rubber and plastics, the implant device wraps around the heart like a rope and squeezes the organ to help move blood through body. Electronic components within the robot synchronize the mechanical squeezing and twisting to the heart's natural rhythm. 

The heart-hugging robot has only been tested on animals so far, but if the technique proves viable for humans, it could be a life-saving option for patients who otherwise can only be helped with heart transplants.

Heart failure — a condition in which the heart is unable to generate sufficient blood flow — affects around 5.7 million people in the US each year, according to a paper describing the device, published Nov. 22 in the journal Science Robotics.

Currently available devices can assist heart function in a similar manner, but the new soft robot device adds several critical improvements, said Nikolay Vasilyev of Harvard Medical School and co-author of the new research.

“While there have been devices that 'hug' the entire surface of both heart ventricles, this is a brand new approach that 'hugs' and engages only one — the diseased ventricle,” Vasilyev told Seeker. “The healthy ventricle stays intact. Importantly, this is the first device that engages the inner structure of the heart — interventricular septum — that plays a very important role in heart contraction.”

In its current iteration, the apparatus consists of an exterior soft-robotic heart-hugging sleeve — that's the “rope” — and an interior anchor that braces the interventricular septum, the muscular wall separating the heart’s two ventricles. The robot can be configured to squeeze either ventricle, targeting the diseased half while leaving the healthy and functioning ventricle undisturbed.

Another benefit of the new device is that it contracts the heart without actually coming in contact with the blood. This reduces the risk of clotting and infection, Vasilyev said. In essence, the soft robot serves as an additional set of muscles around the exterior of the heart, which improves the function of damaged muscle layers.

The soft robotic ventricular assist device consists of an exterior soft-robotic heart-hugging “sleeve” (comprised of soft actuators) and an interior anchor that braces the interventricular septum — a sturdy wall separating the heart’s two ventricles.
The device was tested on beating pig hearts. | Payne et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan6736 (2017)

To effectively circulate blood, the soft robot uses compressed air from an external pump, which inflates the pneumatically actuated sleeves that wrap around the heart. The external pump can be powered by any electrical source. For now, the pump is simply plugged into a wall outlet, Vasilyev said. A portable battery system could eventually be used to power the device.

“We are planning to conduct long-term validation of this technology in chronic animal studies and then move to first-in-human clinical studies,” Vasilyev said. “Bringing medical devices like this one to market takes a long time due to lengthy regulatory pathway and may take up to two to three years.”

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