Breakthrough shape-shifting soft robot helps implants settle quicker

29 Aug 2019

Pacemakers could be protected using the new soft robotic device. Image: © Swapan/

Researchers from Ireland and MIT have teamed up to create a soft robot that helps implants such as pacemakers adapt to the body in rapid time.

Despite the many benefits of implanted medical devices such as pacemakers and neural probes, there comes the problem of the body’s natural reflex wanting to fight any foreign body that happens to come into its space. Such responses both impair the device’s function and limit its long-term efficacy.

Now, however, researchers from the Science Foundation Ireland research centre AMBER, NUI Galway and MIT have published a study to Science Robotics announcing a significant breakthrough in the field of soft robotics that could modify the body’s response to implants for the benefit of the patient.

One common response by the body is fibrosis, whereby a dense fibrous capsule surrounds the implant, which can render it unusable. Failure rates as a result of fibrosis can range from between 30pc and 50pc with implantable pacemakers, and 30pc for mammoplasty prosthetics.

This latest soft robotic device, known as a dynamic soft reservoir (DSR), has been shown to significantly reduce the build-up of the fibrous capsule by manipulating the environment at the point where the body and device meet. The DSR uses mechanical oscillation to modulate how cells respond around the implant.

The researchers said that in a bio-inspired design, the device can change its shape at a microscopic scale through an actuating membrane.

3D design of the soft robotic device.

3D render of the dynamic soft reservoir. Image: NUI Galway

‘This paper could transform future medical devices’

While robotics as a whole has advanced considerably in recent years, soft robotics – malleable machines that can undertake a number of different purposes – have become increasingly popular in the field of medtech.

For example, one of the researchers involved in this latest breakthrough, MIT’s Dr Ellen Roche, previously achieved international recognition for her work on a soft robotic sleeve for the heart. Developed during her time at NUI Galway, it can keep a failing heart pumping inside the body.

Speaking of this latest research, Roche – who was senior co-author of the study – said: “This has vast potential for a range of clinical applications and will hopefully lead to many future collaborative studies between our teams.”

Prof Garry Duffy of NUI Galway and AMBER, who was senior co-author of the study, added: “We feel the ideas described in this paper could transform future medical devices and how they interact with the body.

“We are very excited to develop this technology further and to partner with people interested in the potential of soft robotics to better integrate devices for longer use and superior patient outcomes.”

First author of the study, Dr Eimear Dolan, said that the technology involved in this research is already being developed with a focus on type 1 diabetes.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic