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MIT Engineers Pump Up Heart Research with Innovative Robotic Ventricle

MIT Engineers Pump Up Heart Research with Innovative Robotic VentricleSource: Massachusetts Institute of Technology/
Benjamin Cortez
Published on December 09, 2023

MIT engineers have unveiled a robotic replica of a human heart's right ventricle, a development that paves the way for better heart implants and a deeper understanding of heart disorders. This new technological marvel, a combination of real heart tissue with artificial balloon-like muscles, allows for precise control over the right ventricle's contractions, casting light on the natural valves and complex structures within the heart.

Innovations in the field of cardiac research are set to rapidly accelerate, with scientists now being able to finely tune the artificial ventricle to faithfully reproduce various heart conditions. The MIT team has been able to demonstrate the robo-ventricle's capabilities by simulating right ventricular dysfunctions such as pulmonary hypertension and heart attacks, providing invaluable insights into these conditions. The robotic replica has also been used successfully to test the effectiveness of cardiac devices, including mechanical valves, which are crucial for repairing malfunctioning natural valves and improving heart function.

The significance of the right ventricle and its susceptibility to dysfunction in intensive care settings was highlighted by Manisha Singh, a postdoc at MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. "The RRV simulator can be used in the future to study the effects of mechanical ventilation on the right ventricle and to develop strategies to prevent right heart failure in these vulnerable patients," Singh told MIT News. This level of focus on the right ventricle is essential, as it is one of the least understood chambers of the heart due to its complex structure and motion.

Comprising real heart tissue that retains natural structures too intricate to synthetically reproduce, the model brings a level of detail that was previously unachievable. According to a statement obtained by MIT News, Associate Professor Ellen Roche explained, "There are thin, tiny chordae and valve leaflets with different material properties that are all moving in concert with the ventricle’s muscle." Utilizing an internal camera, the engineers injected a transparent liquid, akin to blood, to clearly observe the internal valves and other structures in action, further ensuring the model's fidelity to actual heart mechanics.

The new robo-ventricle presents itself as a promising tool not just for advancing medical research but also for practical training purposes. Surgeons and interventional cardiologists could potentially use this model to hone their skills in repairing or replacing the tricuspid valve, which is critical to the correct functioning of the right ventricle. This innovative approach underlines the RRV's ability "to accurately replicate tricuspid valve dysfunction" and serve as an "ideal training ground," according to Singh.

While the robotic right ventricle is currently capable of simulating realistic heart function over a period of a few months, the MIT team continues to enhance its longevity and performance. There's also talk of pairing the RRV with a similar model of the left ventricle, setting the stage for a fully tunable, artificial heart in the future. Roche envisions an artificial heart "functioning in people" down the line, though she acknowledges this end goal remains a long way off. The research into this model was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

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