MIT’s robotic heart breakthrough

18th December 2023
Sheryl Miles

Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a robotic replica of the human heart's right ventricle.

This innovative bio-robotic model, a blend of actual heart tissue and synthetic materials, marks a pointed step forward in cardiac research and treatment.

The right ventricle, one of the four chambers of the heart, is less robust than the left ventricle and has a complex architecture. It pumps deoxygenated blood to the lungs, performing a crucial yet often overlooked function in the cardiac system. Historically, the intricate mechanics and dynamics of the right ventricle have posed challenges in clinical diagnosis and treatment, leading to potential misdiagnoses and inadequate treatment strategies. The anatomical complexity of the right ventricle, with its delicate internal structures, has been difficult to study and replicate synthetically, thus limiting the advancements in cardiac medicine, particularly concerning the right ventricle.

The robotic replica, or Robotic Right Ventricle (RRV), addresses these challenges by accurately mimicking the heart's pumping action. The model is constructed using a pig's right ventricle, which is carefully treated to preserve its internal structures. A silicone wrapping acts as a synthetic myocardium, or muscular lining, with long, balloon-like tubes embedded within it. These tubes, strategically placed based on computational modelling, inflate and deflate to replicate the heart's natural rhythm and motion.

This artificial ventricle is remarkable for its ability to be tuned to represent both healthy and diseased states of the heart. It can simulate conditions such as pulmonary hypertension, myocardial infarction, and various other forms of right ventricular dysfunction. The model's utility extends to testing cardiac devices; for example, the team successfully implanted mechanical valves to repair malfunctioning natural valves and observed the changes in the ventricle's pumping action.

The RRV also serves as an invaluable tool for studying the effects of mechanical ventilation on the right ventricle, particularly in intensive care settings. This is significant, given the susceptibility of the right ventricle to dysfunction under such conditions. Researchers can now develop strategies to prevent right heart failure in vulnerable patients, potentially transforming cardiac care and treatment methodologies.

Moreover, the RRV's design allows for the observation of internal valves and structures in action, thanks to a transparent, blood-like liquid used during tests. This feature provides insights into the heart's internal mechanics in a way that was previously not possible. The RRV's ability to accurately replicate the function of the tricuspid valve, a key component in the right ventricle, makes it an ideal training ground for surgeons and interventional cardiologists. It allows them to practice surgical techniques for repairing or replacing the tricuspid valve before applying them in actual patients.

Looking to the future, the team at MIT envisions pairing the RRV with a similar model of the left ventricle to create a fully tunable, artificial heart that could function in humans. Although this goal is still some time away, the current achievements mark a significant step towards it.

This innovative research, supported in part by the National Science Foundation, not only paves the way for improved treatment of heart conditions but also opens up new possibilities in the field of cardiac research and medical training​​​​​​.

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