Robotic Sleeve Mimics Muscles to Keep a Heart Beating

The device reduces the risk of blood clots and strokes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, about 5.7 million adults in the United States have heart failure each year. Worldwide, that number jumps to 41 million.

Currently, the go-to method for treating such organ failure involves surgically implanting a mechanical pump, called a ventricular assist device (VAD), into the heart. Although the pump helps maintain the heart's function, patients with VADs are at high risk for getting blood clots and having a stroke.

Now researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children's Hospital have come up with a device that doesn't have to be implanted. Instead, their soft robotic sleeve slips around the outside of the organ, squeezing it in sync with a beating heart.

Because the device doesn't come into direct contact with the blood, patients are at a much lower risk for having clots and shouldn't have to take blood-thinning medication.

"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," Conor Walsh, said in a press statement. Walsh, an associate professor at the Wyss Institute, and his colleagues published the results of their study today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The sleeve they developed is made from thin silicone and attaches to the outside of the heart with a combination of suction devices and sutures. It relies on soft, air-powered actuators that twist and compress in a way that's similar to the outer layer of muscle of a human heart. A gel coating reduces any friction between the sleeve and the organ.

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Because the sleeve is soft and flexible, it can be customized to fit not just the size and shape of individual hearts, but augment the organ's weaknesses. For example, if a patient's heart is weaker on the left side than the right, the sleeve can be tuned to squeeze with more authority on the left side. As the organ gains strength, the device can be adjusted.

"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," Frank Pigula, a cardiothoracic surgeon and co-corresponding author on the study, said. Pigula, formerly at Boston Children's Hospital, is now a faculty member at University of Louisville and division chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at Kosair Children's Hospital.

At the moment, the device has only been tested in animals and more research needs to be done before it can be used in humans. But the researchers say this is a first step in using soft robotics inside the human body to help treat injuries or disease.

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