Although heart attacks and heart failure affect millions of people around the world each year, treatment options are still considerably limited. If patients with advanced heart disease are not able to receive a transplant, doctors often implant devices that help the heart continue to pump, along with utilizing cardiac event monitors to continually track progress. Unfortunately, the valves and pumps in these devices come into direct contact with blood, which can put patients at risk for further serious complications.

However, new hope for people suffering from heart failure is on the horizon. According to an article from Harvard University, researchers from the Ivy League school and the neighboring Boston Children’s Hospital have recently developed a customizable soft robot that fits around the human heart and helps it continue to beat.

The soft robotic device features material properties similar to that of native heart tissue, and fits snugly around the heart as a sort of sleeve. This robotic sheath encases the heart and supports cardiovascular functions weakened by heart failure with alternating pressure and suction. Compressed air is used to power artificial silicone muscles that mimic the twisting and compressing movements of a healthy human heart.

Unlike the devices that are currently available to provide ventricular assistance, Harvard’s soft robotic sleeve does not directly come into contact with blood. The sleeve is attached to the heart using a combination of a suction device, sutures and a gel interface to help reduce friction between the device and heart. This feature reduces the risk of infection or clotting, and eliminates the need for a patient to take potentially dangerous blood thinners.

Additionally, the robotic sleeve can be customized to fit the needs of each individual patient. For example, if a patient is experiencing weakness on the right side of the heart, the actuators can be set to provide more support in that area. The artificial muscles can be selectively activated to compress, twist, or perform both functions on either side of the heart. The pressure of the actuators can also be increased or decreased as the patient’s status fluctuates.

When partnered with an ongoing cardiac monitoring service, Harvard’s robotic heart sleeve device may eventually be able to help a patient maintain heart function before a transplant or even help with cardiac rehabilitation.

As Ellen T. Roche, the paper’s first author and former PhD student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and The Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University said, “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.”

Although more research needs to be done before the sleeve can be implanted in humans, our team at Cardiac Monitoring Service believes that the sleeve is an important first step towards developing implantable soft robots that can augment organ function. After the research was published in Science Translational Medicine, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development filed a patent application and is currently pursuing commercialization opportunities.


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