Cardiovascular diseases are talking more and more lives each year. Heart-related issues are especially common, with heart failure afflicting more than 5 million Americans. The big problem with heart failure is that it costs the country about 32 billion dollars per year.
Currently, there is no cure for heart failure. The most promising remedy comes in the shape of an air-powered robot. The robot was developed by a team of engineers from Harvard University in 2017. The robot has the shape of a sleeve that fits over the bottom part of the heart, forming a cocoon-like structure. The robot then inflates and deflates to squeeze the heart and help it pump.
The robot has been tested on six pigs that succumbed to heart failure, and it was able to restore normal blood flow in all of them when their hearts stopped. Additional long-term animal studies still need to be performed before transitioning into human studies, but the little robot shows promise. If further testing is successful, the robot might become a plausible form of treatment for severe heart failure. Currently, doctors primarily use VADs (ventricular assist device implants) which then keep the heart pumping until a suitable transplant donor is found or to extend a patient’s life indefinitely.
The way VADs work is that they pipe blood from the heart using a mechanical pump and they then distribute the blood into the arteries. The machines are excellent for what they do, but since they are in direct contact with the patient’s blood, blood thinners need to be administered regularly; otherwise, blood clots start to form. This puts patients at severe risk and that is why a new method needs to be developed as soon as possible.
As the soft robotic sleeve does not come into contact with the patient’s blood, it is a much safer option. The sleeve fits perfectly around the heart, and it can contract and twist the same way that the heart naturally moves.
During testing, scientists induced complete cardiac arrest in the six pigs that were used in the experiment. They then used the sleeve to start pumping blood into their hearts for periods of at least 15 minutes, if not more.
The testing has shown much promise, but there are still many obstacles which need to be overcome. One of the main issues was the damage done to the hearts soft tissue. If the device squeezed the heart for a period of two hours it often became inflamed. This mostly occurred in the region where a tiny suction cup was used to secure the device to the heart. One way the scientists tried to remedy this is by applying a coat of hydrogel to the device, but that method proved to be ineffective. This means that the scientists still need to find some form of adhesive that does not damage the surface layers of the heart.
Another issue with the heart sleeve is that it is a reasonably bulky device. The device needs to be connected to an external air compressor which makes moving around with it very difficult, not to mention painful. The idea is to make the device more portable by having the air compressor and power supply attached to a belt which is worn on the waist. Cables are still going to stick out of the patients to connect the device to the power supply. VADs work in a similar fashion to this. Scientists are also working on ways to make the device completely implantable.
The device shows a lot of promise, and there is a chance that similar devices might be able to help with other forms of cardiac diseases as well as ailments in other organs.