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Soft robot sleeve will help hearts to beat when they’re failing

roup of medical staff at hospital, doctors team standing together
Dotshock/123RF
Soft robotics represents one of the most exciting and promising areas of robotics research right now, but one application we have not heard of before is the idea that such a soft robot might be able to help patients in heart failure by physically keeping their heart beating.

That’s the goal of an intriguing new research project, which involves the creation of an innovative soft robotic sleeve that wraps around a biological heart and helps it to beat through a combination of twisting and compressing movements in sync with the heart’s natural beating rhythm.

“It’s designed for heart failure patients who have reduced pumping function and can’t meet the demands of the body,” researcher Dr. Ellen Roche, currently at NUI Galway in Ireland, told Digital Trends. “The main advantage compared to existing solutions is that it doesn’t come into contact with the blood, which helps reduce complications like clotting or potential strokes.”

The work was carried out at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital. At the time, Dr. Roche was a PhD student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering.

The sleeve is made from a thin silicone layer, with soft pneumatic actuators placed around the heart. The device is attached to an external pump, which uses air to power its actuators. Cleverly, the sleeve could be customized to serve patients with different requirements, such as giving more assistance on one side to people with certain areas of weakness. The actuator pressure could also increase or decrease as required.

So far, it has been tested on both a synthetic heart and live pigs, and has been shown to work effectively, although it’s not yet ready for human trials.

“At present, it’s still very much in the research phase,” Dr. Roche said, regarding plans to roll the technology out. “We’ll need to do a lot more testing before we can think about moving to humans. It’s a few years off, at least.”

While we appreciate the importance of making sure such technology is safe, with heart failure affecting 41 million people worldwide, let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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