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Robotic silicone sleeve keeps heart pumping

The sleeve wraps around the heart and uses compressed air to pump blood without touching it.

Norbert Sparrow

January 20, 2017

2 Min Read
Robotic silicone sleeve keeps heart pumping

A soft robotic sleeve made of silicone that hugs the heart and squeezes it, just like cardiac muscles, could one day give humans suffering from heart disease a new lease on life. For now, though, six pigs have been the beneficiaries of this potentially revolutionary treatment.

Image courtesy Ellen Roche/Harvard University.

Researchers at Harvard University and the Boston Children’s Hospital wound artificial muscles into a silicone sleeve, so that it alternately compresses, twists and relaxes in synchrony with the heart tissue underneath, reports Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press. The research is published in the current issue of Science Translational Medicine (STM).

The robotic sleeve uses compressed air to power artificial silicone muscles that compress and twist, mimicking the movements of the normal human heart, write the scientists in STM.

More than 41 million people globally suffer from heart failure; in severe cases, the only remedies are a heart transplant or implantation of a ventricular assist device (VAD). Transplants are hard to come by, and VADs come in contact with the blood, posing a number of risks including the formation of blood clots and occurrence of strokes. Up to 20% of patients using a VAD experience a stroke, note the researchers. The sleeve avoids these complications because it does not come into contact with blood.

“Our approach used a biologically inspired design to orient individual contracting elements or actuators in a layered helical and circumferential fashion, mimicking the orientation of the outer two muscle layers of the mammalian heart,” write the researchers. “The resulting implantable soft robot mimicked the form and function of the native heart, with a stiffness value of the same order of magnitude as that of the heart tissue. We demonstrated feasibility of this soft sleeve device for supporting heart function in a porcine model of acute heart failure. The soft robotic sleeve can be customized to patient-specific needs and may have the potential to act as a bridge to transplant for patients with heart failure.”

The researchers selected Ecoflex 00-30 silicone as the matrix for fabrication of the soft actuated material because it can generate large strains and because its elastic modulus is within the range of reported values for passive myocardial tissue.

The animal experiments lasted only a few hours, and the researchers must now try to determine the longevity of the device. It will be a long time before testing can begin in humans, but the technology’s potential is enormous.

The video below posted by Science magazine shows the device in action.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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