Synthesising cardiac innovations: the biorobotic heart simulator

17th January 2024
Sheryl Miles

A team of researchers has engineered a biorobotic heart that replicates the rhythm and dynamics of a real heart.

Central to this innovation is a focus on simulating the left heart valve, a critical aspect of cardiac function. This heart valve simulator, unveiled in the journal ‘Device’, embodies the structure, function, and motion of both healthy and diseased hearts.

It is an innovation offers a new dimension to surgical and research methodologies, facilitating real-time data acquisition during various medical interventions.

Ellen Roche, the lead biomedical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasises the simulator's multifaceted utility: "The simulator has a huge benefit as a research tool for those who study different heart valve conditions and interventions. It can serve as a surgical training platform for clinicians, medical students, and trainees, allow device engineers to study their new designs, and even help patients better understand their own disease and potential treatments."

Traditional heart simulators and animal studies, while useful, have limitations. Conventional simulators lack the complete complexity of a human heart and have a limited operational lifespan of just a few hours. Animal studies, while providing some insights, are costly, time-consuming, and their findings don't always translate well to human conditions. The biorobotic heart emerges as a cost-effective solution with a significantly longer shelf life, addressing these challenges.

The research primarily addresses mitral regurgitation, a condition affecting approximately 24.2 million people globally, where the valve between the left heart chambers fails to close properly, causing blood to flow backward. This can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, limb swelling, and heart failure. The complexity of the valve's anatomy makes surgical interventions particularly challenging, underlining the necessity for precise and effective technological solutions.

The team crafted this biorobotic heart using a pig heart as a base model. They substituted the muscle in the left chamber with a silicone-based soft robotic pump, powered by air. This innovative system mimics the contractions of a real heart, effectively pumping artificial blood through a simulated circulatory system.

When the team induced damage to the mitral valve, the biorobotic heart exhibited characteristics of mitral regurgitation. Surgeons then successfully applied three repair techniques, restoring normal heart function. The system's compatibility with standard clinical imaging technologies and its use of clear artificial blood allow for unprecedented visibility during procedures.

Roche highlights the value of this visibility: "It was really interesting for the surgeons to see every step. When you're working with patients, you can't visualise the process because there's blood in the heart."

Looking forward, the team aims to refine the biorobotic heart system further, reducing production time and extending its lifespan. They are also exploring the use of 3D printing to create a synthetic human heart, enhancing the model's applicability and realism.

Roche envisions that this biorobotic heart could significantly expedite and improve the design and approval process of cardiac devices, ultimately bringing substantial benefits to patients in need of cardiac interventions.

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