emPOWER project aims for artificial muscles

Artificial muscles to replace or work alongside our own muscles are being developed by emPOWER, a project aiming to extend life by restoring natural body function.

emPOWER
emPOWER robotic muscles will be implanted to replace the body’s damaged or ageing muscles (Image: Bristol University)

Sarcopenia – the loss of skeletal muscle mass and function – is responsible for health problems, body function disorders and is brought about by ageing, stroke, trauma and degenerative diseases. Current treatments are predominantly based on external devices such as orthoses and rigid exoskeletons that can cause tissue damage and are limited in use.

Soft wearable rehab devices will act like artificial muscles

Led by Jonathan Rossiter, Professor of Robotics at Bristol University, the emPOWER will explore how artificial muscles could radically transform treatment options in the future and effectively turn back the body clock. Project partners include Imperial College, UCL and the NIHR Devices for Dignity MedTech Co-operative, hosted by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust.

“We are working on the principle that implanting robotic, artificial muscles to replace or work alongside our own muscles, can restore natural body function and help us all to live longer, more comfortable and active lives,” Prof Rossiter said in a statement. “emPOWER implantable muscles must work seamlessly with the body. They must be biocompatible, integrate smoothly and strongly with natural bone and tissue, and coordinate intelligently with the patient’s own movements and muscle actions.”

To deliver this level of complexity, the emPOWER project is a multi-disciplinary team of 30 researchers across soft robotics, materials science, bioengineering, chemistry, ethics, healthcare regulation and medicine.

According to Prof Rossiter, the emPOWER team will deliver a system of implantable muscles that receive their energy from outside the body, for example from a small power pack, and which communicate directly with the nervous system for control and sensing.

“This is truly a project for 2050 and beyond, taking an adventurous approach that leap-frogs current state-of-the-art research,” he said. “There is considerable work to be done but we confidently expect to see empower artificial muscles in clinical use before 2050.”

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through its Transformative Healthcare Technologies for 2050.