Researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital constructed a new type of soft robot, one that could give hope to millions of heart patients. The robot is constructed in a way that it could be fit around the heart, helping it to beat normally.

The new way of treating heart diseases is way more advanced than other types of cardiac ventricular assist devices (VAD). It doesn’t have to make any contact with blood, using it doesn’t require any blood thinner or anti-coagulation therapy, and it takes away the risk of infection.

Image Courtesy of Ellen Rouche/Harvard SEAS
Image Courtesy of Ellen Rouche/Harvard SEAS

The robotic sleeve is constructed in a way so that it can be implanted around the heart, helping it to twist and compress, similar to the way a cardiac ventricular assist device functions. It is attached to the heart with the help of the suction device, along with sutures and gel interface. This way, the sleeve works while causing only a fraction of the friction between it and the heart compared to classic VADs.

The soft robot is made out of silicon and is equipped with air-powered soft actuators behaving like natural muscles, enabling the device to produce natural twisting and compressing movements. The air power needed for actuators to work is taken from an external pump.

The study is published in Science Translational Medicine journal, as a joint research conducted by Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Boston Children’s Hospital and Wyss Institute.

For now, the project is still just a proof of concept but the researchers hope that the device will provide an important assistance to patients going through cardiac rehabilitation therapy.

Ellen T. Roche, first author and a former Ph.D. scholar with SEAS, stated that “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.”

The best thing about the device is that it can be customized to fit the needs of different patients. It can be fitted to provide assistance for just one side of the heart, for instance, and the actuators can react and adapt to pressure changes as well as to changes in patient’s condition.

Until now, the lack of suitable technology made devices like this soft robot just a concept, but the research proved that it is possible to build a soft robot that’s able to interact with soft tissues of the heart and help patients without the need for expensive surgeries or risky therapies.

Conor Walsh, a senior author of the paper, hopes that the research can lead to many future applications and new devices that will be able to provide mechanotherapy for other body parts, not just the heart.