Soft robotic pump helps food and drink through the oesophagus

Researchers have developed a wirelessly activated device that mimics the wavelike muscular function in the oesophagus and small intestine responsible for moving food and fluids for digestion.

Developed by a team at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the soft-robotic prototype is driven by strong magnets controlled by a wearable external actuator and can aid patients suffering from blockages caused by tumours or those requiring stents.

Traditional oesophageal stents are metal tubes used in patients with oesophageal cancer. These patients risk food being blocked from entering the stomach, potentially causing a situation where food enters the lung instead.

Restoring the natural motion of peristalsis, the wavelike muscular function that takes place inside tubular human organs, ‘paves the way for next-generation robotic medical devices to improve the quality of life especially for the ageing population,’ researchers wrote in a new paper in Advanced Functional Materials.

The study was led by Xiaoguang Dong, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering. This work was done in collaboration with Vanderbilt University Medical Center colleague, Dr. Rishi Naik, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

The device consists of a soft sheet of small magnets arrayed in parallel rows that are activated in a precise undulating motion that produces the torque required to pump various solid and liquid cargoes. “Magnetically actuated soft robotic pumps that can restore peristalsis and seamlessly integrate with medical stents have not been reported before,” the team reported in the paper.

Dong said further refinements of the device could aid in other biological processes that may have been compromised by disease. He said the design could be used to help transport human eggs from the ovaries when muscular function in the fallopian tubes has been impaired. In addition, the researchers said with advanced manufacturing processes, the device could be scaled down to adapt to narrower passageways.

Vanderbilt University School of Engineering provided funding support. Oak Ridge National Laboratory provided facility support for this research. The research team is affiliated with the Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering (VISE).

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