A new type of soft robotic sleeve has been invented to keep a weak or damaged heart beating, and it could save the lives of transplant patients who often have to wait months - or sometimes more than year - to receive a new organ.
The customisable silicon device wraps around the damaged organ, and is able to automatically twist and compress in sync with the beats, and recent animal trials have seen it return their heart function to near-perfect levels after total failure.
"This research is really significant at the moment because more and more people are ending up with heart failure," said one of the team behind the invention, Ellen Roche from the National University of Ireland Galway.
"Soft robotic devices are ideally suited to interact with soft tissue, and give assistance that can help with augmentation of function, and potentially even healing and recovery."
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To give you an idea of how common heart failure has become, almost a million new cases are diagnosed each year in the US alone, and if you're unlucky enough to require a new heart, you're looking at a waiting list of at least six months.
Different types of devices exist to keep patients alive during the long wait for a transplant, but they're not ideal. One of the most commonly used technologies for patients with heart failure are ventricular assist devices (VADs), but they come with a whole lot of risks.
You also have to worry about infections and malfunctions, and the device could actually create an imbalance between your heart's right and left ventricle, causing it fail all over again.
To reduce the risk of bleeding and clotting, Roche and her team invented a flexible robotic sleeve that does not come in contact with the blood flow, but instead envelopes the organ and enhances the beats across all areas of the heart.
The thin silicon device has been designed to mimic the outer muscle layers of the heart, and it's able to be customised to an individual organ - if you had a weakness in the left part of your heart, for example, it would give more support on that side.
The device is tethered to an external pump, which uses air to power the parts that compress and release the heart according to its natural rhythms.
It's yet to be tested in humans, so we'll have to wait and see if it can keep infection risks and malfunctions at bay, but the device has shown promise in a trial involving six pigs.
As Meghan Rosen reports for Science News, after the pigs experienced heart failure, the volume of blood pumped by the heart dropped to more than half its healthy rate - so about 1 litre of blood per minute.
But once the sleeve was implanted, it restored the pumped volume to just over 2.5 litres of blood per minute, which is roughly equivalent to a healthy, unassisted heart.
With an estimated 15 to 20 percent of patients dying while waiting for a transplant, we need better options. Hopefully something like this can do the job.
The research has been published in Science Translational Medicine.