Ellen Roche is a biomedical engineer who develops medical devices for the treatment of cardiac disease. She leads the heart sleeve project.
What is the heart sleeve?
'The heart sleeve is a flexible robotic device you can place around the heart to help pump blood around the body. It hugs the heart, mimicking heart muscle, squeezing and twisting in sync with the heartbeat. The sleeve is connected to an external pump. It contracts when inflated with pressurised air and relaxes when the air is released. It is also customisable to each patient’s individual heart shape and movement patterns.'
What sets it apart from other devices designed to support the heart?
'Existing devices act like pumps implanted into the body, essentially taking over the job of the heart. They are in direct contact with blood and heart tissue, which can lead to complications. Contact can cause blood to clot and lead to a stroke. The heart sleeve is not in direct contact with blood. This reduces the risk of clotting. So patients don't need to take medication to thin their blood and prevent clots.'
Why is the heart sleeve important?
'Heart failure affects millions of people worldwide. This technology could provide patients with an alternative to pumping devices that require them to take blood thinners. It could be used in patients with end-stage heart failure waiting for heart transplants. In the future, we hope the device could even help some patients to regain heart function. '
What inspired this project?
'The desire to create a device that could be placed outside the heart rather than inside it, combining soft robotic techniques with cardiac devices. As a biomedical engineer studying at a robotics lab in Harvard, I was ideally placed to do this. I worked with cardiac surgeon Frank Pigula who also led the research and was co-advised by specialists from other fields: roboticist Conor Walsh and bioengineer David Mooney.'
What stage are you at with your research?
'We’ve tested the device successfully on six pig hearts, proving that the concept works. We’ll need to conduct longer-term studies in order to assess the durability of the device and any resulting complications. The technology needs to be refined to make it more suitable for longer-term implantation in the body. We also need to assess the best method of attaching the sleeve to the heart. '