Why wearing your sleeve on your heart is a thing in soft robotics

11 Aug 2017

Dr Ellen Roche, research fellow at NUI Galway, speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

NUI Galway’s Dr Ellen Roche has won international acclaim for her work in creating a soft robotic sleeve for patients who live with heart difficulties.

From a scientific perspective, one of the most fascinating talks at Inspirefest 2017 involved research fellow and postdoctoral researcher Dr Ellen Roche, who stunned the audience with her work revealing the cyborg future that could await many of us.

Based in NUI Galway, Roche and a team of fellow researchers published a paper earlier this year detailing how the field of soft robotics can help a patient with heart failure live for much longer, thanks to a sleeve placed around the affected organ.

For those unfamiliar, soft robotics is a relatively new field of engineering that uses flexible moulds and electrics to create a series of devices able to do things that standard, rigid robotic devices can’t.

This has seen it gain traction in a number of different research fields, none more so than health, where this flexibility – and, in some cases, passive power consumption – gives it numerous advances over existing systems.

In the case of heart failure, current treatment of patients awaiting a transplant is limited to using a device that reroutes blood to other parts of the body. This carries a number of risks, particularly contamination.

Softer and more biological

Roche’s silicone sleeve is designed to be placed around the patient’s heart and uses externally controlled soft pneumatic actuators to mimic the outer muscle layers.

This gives the heart regular squeezes – similar to a regularly functioning heart – with no chance of the patient’s blood supply potentially being harmed through the rerouting process.

“Luckily for us, cardiac device engineering has advanced a lot in recent years, and we can see different trends in the way cardiac devices are changing,” Roche said on stage.

“The trend is for things to move towards being softer and being more biological.”

With the advent of advanced imaging technology such as computed tomography scans – or CT scans, as they are better known – Roche and her team can get a blueprint for the dimensions of a heart and build a sleeve accordingly.

Siliconrepublic.com readers will be familiar with some of Roche’s soft robotics colleagues, including Harvard researcher Conor Walsh, who led a team to design a powerful exosuit as well as developing the Soft Robotics Toolkit with Inspirefest 2016 speaker Dónal Holland.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic