Engineers design bionic ‘heart’ that beats like the real thing

A bionic “heart” that simulates the beating motion of the real thing has been developed by scientists.

Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say their so-called biorobotic hybrid device could be used for testing artificial valves and other cardiac devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators without the need for animal tests.

Dr Ellen Roche, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and one of the study authors, said: “Regulatory testing of cardiac devices requires many fatigue tests and animal tests.

“[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.”

The team also believe their findings, published in the journal Science Robotics, could one day be used to develop artificial hearts for humans.

Dr Chris Nyugen, of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cardiovascular Research Centre and co-lead author on the study, said: “With further tissue engineering, we could potentially see the biorobotic hybrid heart be used as an artificial heart – a very needed potential solution given the global heart failure epidemic where millions of people are at the mercy of a competitive heart transplant list.”

Motion of the biorobotic hybrid heart
Motion of the biorobotic hybrid heart

The team developed a robotic myocardium – the muscular outer tissue of the heart – and wrapped it around a pig’s inner heart like “bubble wrap” using a tissue silicone adhesive they designed called TissueSil.

The artificial muscles of the robotic myocardium were able to mimic the pattern of the heart’s natural muscle fibres, acting together to squeeze and twist the inner heart, similar to the way a real heart beats and pumps blood.

Dr Roche added: “The device is a real biological heart whose tough muscle tissue has been replaced with a soft robotic matrix of artificial heart muscles, resembling bubble wrap.”

The team say they can control the heart rate, contractility and stroke volume of their bionic heart to simulate a diseased heart.

The researchers believe this type of modelling can be used to help designers test cardiac devices such as prosthetic heart valves, pacemakers and defibrillators.

Dr Nyugen said: “Imagine that a patient before cardiac device implantation could have their heart scanned, and then clinicians could tune the device to perform optimally in the patient well before the surgery.”