A group of scientists has developed a robotic sleeve that can aid hearts that cannot perform their functions correctly. The study was published this Wednesday in the Science Translational Medicine magazine.
This innovative method consists of the robotic device wrapping the person’s heart softly as it starts giving gentle squeezes and compressions that must be synchronized. This procedure can help the pumping of the blood, especially in patients who suffer from weak hearts.
The expert in charge of the study was Dr. Ellen Roche, former Ph.D. student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
Currently, other mechanisms are oriented to aid patients with heart illnesses. For example, the ventricular assist devices, (VADs), that were made to help persons that live through the end-stage of heart diseases and are waiting for a transplant. However, the usage of this method is considered risky, as complications in the design process of the VAD could prejudice the person’s health.
Among the possible complications that the use of a VAD could produce, there is a high risk of clotting that could force patients to consume potentially dangerous blood thinner medicines.
The benefits of the robotic heat sleeve
According to the study, the risk of clotting is not present if a patient chooses the robotic sleeve mechanism instead of a VAD. This because the sleeve would not be in contact with blood at any moment, unlike the other device.
Right now worldwide, 41 million are people affected by heart-related complications. For the investigation team, the main hope is that this robotic sleeve device could bridge patients to transplant or provide assistance in their cardiac recovery process.
“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,” explains Dr. Roche, now a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Peter McHugh in biomedical engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway.
The investigation team always knew that one of their priorities was for the device not to be in contact with blood at any moment. For this objective to be accomplished, the team mimicked the heart functionality and operation mechanisms to create a device that could work similarly.
The sleeve is made of thin silicone and is equipped with pneumatic actuators located around the organ that can play the role of the actual layers of muscles that cause the heart pump the blood. These actuators will compress and squeeze the heart softly recreating the heart beating, as they are powered by an external pump that uses air to make the device work.
According to Dr. Roche, each sleeve device could be customized to the needs of every patient. For example, is a person has the heart weakness located on the left side of the organ, the device can be tuned to provide the proper assistance to that particular location. Also, the pressure that the actuators would provide is changeable, as it can be modified according to the patient’s condition evolution.
The investigation team has stated that further studies and experimentations must be conducted for the device be usable for humans. However, the current development of the mechanism is a huge advance regarding heart-failure medical procedures. Even other organs could be helped, now that the robotic sleeve method is being introduced.
“This research is really significant at the moment because more and more people are ending up with heart failure,” said Roche. “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.”
Developing the device
The investigation team from the Harvard University was able to conduct the experimentation with an animal group formed by 6 live female pigs whose hearts had stopped working. All the investigations and experimentations were conducted at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital.
According to Connor Walsh, a soft roboticist at Harvard University and co-author of the investigation, the results of the study are the prove that robotic implementation is going to aid the human organ functionality greatly sooner than later.
The research team explained that thanks to recent advances regarding robotic technology, they were able to subtract the typical stiffness present in that kind of devices.
The scientific community is developing projects that consist on the making of robotic artifacts that are made of softer materials such as flexible plastic and rubber. This innovation allowed the researchers to include that kind of materials into the robotic sleeve, as all devices that are going to be in contact with the human organism in delicate situations must be safe enough.