Soft robot offers hope for heart failure patients

Researchers at the National University of Ireland Galway have developed a robotic device that could help failing hearts continue to beat.

The technology – a soft robotic sleeve which wraps around the heart and twists and compresses in synch with its beat – could lead to new treatment options for people suffering from heart failure, a condition which, in the UK alone, affects around 900,000 people.

Systems known as ventricular assist devices (VADs) are already used to sustain heart failure patients awaiting transplant but can lead to complications, including an increased risk of clotting.

Unlike VADs, the soft robotic sleeve does not directly contact blood, avoiding that risk.

ellen roche
Dr Ellen Roche of National University of Ireland Galway.

To achieve this the researchers took inspiration from the heart itself. The thin silicone sleeve uses soft pneumatic actuators placed around the heart to mimic the outer muscle layers of the mammalian heart. The actuators twist and compress the sleeve in a similar motion to the beating heart. The device is tethered to an external pump, which uses air to power the soft actuators.

“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,” explained one of the lead researchers on the project, Dr Ellen Roche of National University of Ireland Galway.

“The sleeve can be customised for each patient”, added Roche. If a patient has more weakness on the left side of the heart, for example, the actuators can be tuned to give more assistance on that side. The pressure of the actuators can also increase or decrease over time, as the patient’s condition evolves.

Roche added that the research marks a first step towards an implantable soft robot able to augment organ function. “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,” she said.

The research into the device, which has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine today, took place at Harvard and at Boston Children’s Hospital.