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By squeezing and twisting, new robot could keep hearts pumping

Published Jan 30th, 2017 7:31PM EST
Image: Ellen Roche/Harvard University

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Like Wall–E, a new robot may soon find its way into– or rather onto– your heart.

Researchers from Harvard have created a silicone sleeve that has been proven to help a pig’s heart continue to pump blood after it’s failed. With some tweaks, there’s a chance the soft, squishy robo–sleeve could work in humans, keeping hearts beating until a transplant can be performed.

The robot is made from an adjustable elastic silicone sleeve lined with narrow tubes. One set of tubes wraps around the sleeve while the other set extends from top to bottom. Air pumped through the tubes makes the sleeve twist and contract.


“When these [tubes] are pressurized with air in synchrony with the heart cycle, the device can squeeze and twist like the underlying heart and augment its function,” study leader Dr. Ellen Roche explained.

To test the device, researchers induced heart failure in six pigs and then measured the amount of blood that continued to pump with and without the robot’s help. Volume was cut in half by heart failure to 1 liter per minute. However, once the device was activated it got the blood pumping back to the almost–normal rate of 2.5 liters per minute.

The robot was created by the Harvard Biodesign lab, which teamed up with a local cardiac surgeon for the project.


“Dr. Frank Pigula, a cardiac surgeon at Boston Children’s hospital, identified problems with blood clotting associated with currently–used heart pumps that were implanted in heart failure patients and rerouted the blood through foreign materials,” Roche told Fox News. “So we put our heads together and collaborated on designing a non blood–contacting soft robotic sleeve that went around the outside of the failing heart and was actuated in synchrony with the heart to help it to pump in heart failure patients.”

Since there’s a shortage of heart donors, many patients with end–stage heart failure use VADs (Ventricular Assist Devices) to keep the blood pumping. However, blood forms clots easily in the artificial plumbing, making the patient susceptible to blocked blood vessels and strokes. Blood thinners (which come with their own hazards) are prescribed to help with the clotting, but clotting can occur even with the medication. A big bonus of the new robot sleeve– which can be customized for each patient– is that it doesn’t come into contact with blood, eliminating the need for blood thinners.


A few modifications still have to be made before the robot is approved for use in humans. The current version is a tethered implantable system that uses a wall–compressed supply. For human use, the whole system will need to be miniaturized to fit into the body. Otherwise, a pump and system controller would have to be worn around the waist. And though the current device only works for a few hours, Roche and her team are hoping that the human version will function for much, much longer.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but ultimately we would hope it to last for years,” she said. “We will continue working on this technology and work towards long-term preclinical studies.”

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