Harvard Researchers Develop a Robotic Device that Fixes Heart Failure

Harvard researchers revealed that they have developed a robotic device that could one day restore the physiological function of a failing heart.

In the paper entitled “Soft robotic sleeve supports heart function” published in the Science Translational Medicine Magazine, Harvard researchers led by Ellen Roche wrote that robots have been traditionally used in conditions where they do not interact closely with humans – such as in the factory assembly lines. This traditional role of robots, the Harvard researchers said, is being transformed by a “new wave of soft robots that are constructed using a combination of elastomers, fibers, and other filler materials.” According to the researchers, soft robots are perfectly suited for intimate interactions with humans as they complement biological tissues.

The soft robotic device developed by the Harvard researchers, in collaboration with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Boston Children’s Hospital, restored cardiac function to an average of about 97 percent in Yorkshire pigs with drug-induced heart failure.

“Here, we used soft robotic techniques to develop a tethered implantable sleeve that can provide circulatory support for patients with compromised heart function. The soft robotic sleeve we describe took inspiration from native heart muscle and was designed to augment cardiac function by closely replicating it, instead of disrupting it,” the researchers wrote. In addition to soft materials, the researchers attribute the success of the robotic device to soft robotic technologies that “allow programming of customized, conformable materials to dynamically change their stiffness in synchrony with native tissue.”

The researchers stressed the importance of the soft robotic heart sleeve as there are only about 2,100 donor hearts transplanted annually. A report from the American Heart Association in 2013 showed that heart failure – a condition that could lead to disability or death – affects 41 million people worldwide, including over 5 million people in the United States.

“We envision many other future applications where such devices can deliver mechanotherapy, both inside and outside of the body,” senior author of the paper Conor Walsh told Harvard Magazine.