MIT researchers develop beating 'biorobotic hybrid' for testing heart valves

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a bionic hybrid heart designed not for patients, but for engineers—to better test out new designs of prosthetic heart valve implants and replacements.

The device starts with a real, biological heart, which is chemically preserved and wrapped in a flexible, robotic matrix of artificial muscles that simulate its contractions. Using a series of inflating and deflating air pockets, which look a little like bubble wrap, the robotic heart muscle can flex and beat the same way as a real one does as it works to pump blood through the body.

In a lab, this could be used to test heart valves for proficiency or leakage through innumerous heartbeats and potentially better than current benchtop simulation methods.

"Regulatory testing of cardiac devices requires many fatigue tests and animal tests," said Ellen Roche, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. "[The new device] could realistically represent what happens in a real heart, to reduce the amount of animal testing or iterate the design more quickly."

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A close-up of the robotic actuators that inflate
to squeeze the ventricles the same way a real
heart pumps blood (Ellen Roche, et al.)

Roche and her co-authors estimate the demand for replacement heart valves will increase by almost 13% over the next six years as the population ages. Their work was published in the journal Science Robotics and supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

The work began as a project to develop a soft, implantable sleeve for a live heart, which could help pump blood in patients diagnosed with heart failure.

In their latest model, the pneumatic actuators are aligned with the natural muscle fibers that squeeze and twist the heart’s ventricles. The researchers also developed a new adhesive to bond the silicone sleeve directly to cardiac tissues, dubbed TissueSil.

Still, with future tissue engineering, the researchers say that their biorobotic hybrid approach could one day show potential as the basis for an artificial heart transplant or as a personalized model for fitting and testing implants for individual patients.