This Soft Robot Squeezes the Heart to Pump Blood

It doesn't make contact with blood, which helps reduce the risk of stroke.

by Madison Margolin
Jan 19 2017, 5:58pm

Image: Science Translational Medicine

For heart failure patients, a new soft robot may soon be able to help by compressing the heart and coaxing it to beat.

Scientists at Harvard University and the Boston Children's Hospital are developing a customizable soft robot that fits around the heart and supports its natural pumping, according to a Science Translational Medicine report. The device is safer than the more existing devices we have right now.

"[The heart] is already beating, but not pumping much, [so] the device is beating with it, compressing and twisting with it," Ellen Roche, former PhD student at Harvard and the soft robot paper's first author, told Motherboard. "[The soft robot] gives [the heart] extra power to squeeze and twist and eject the blood. It's basically massaging it from the outside with a perfectly synchronized motion."

The device is so soft that it matches the material properties of the native heart tissue and conforms well to its outer surface, said Roche. The robot is made of silicone rubber, while the contractual elements are made of silicone or urethane and surrounded by nylon braided mesh. It's connected to an external pump, which uses air to power the soft actuators. In doing so, the soft robot helps the heart pump blood without actually touching the blood itself.

Unlike devices that are already on the market for heart failure patients, the soft robot, which Roche estimates will be available to patients in about five years, does not come into direct contact with blood. This reduces risk significantly, said Roche, since when blood comes into contact with foreign materials, it can lead to stroke. Patients who use the soft robot would have a lower risk of blood clot and less need to take potentially dangerous blood thinner medication.

"This is one of the first demonstrations of soft robotics as an implantable device that's inside the body," said Roche. "This field of soft robotics has been growing. It's exciting and has applications in the heart and can be extended to other organs inside the body and externally, as well."

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.