Oct 10, 2015 | By Benedict

Researchers at Cornell have developed a lightweight, flexible material which they hope will soon be used to create an artificial human heart. The new material, termed ‘elastomeric foam’, could potentially be used for prosthetic body parts, artificial organs, and soft robotics. 

Starting as a liquid, the polymer foam can be poured into a mold to form a soft yet solid material. The advantage of producing artificial organs this way is that they can be made from a single piece of material, reducing components and thus potential for failure. The foam has connected pores which allow fluids to be pumped through it, upon which the material moves and can enlarge to three times its original size without losing its basic shape. The porous channels are created by mixing salt with the rubbery elastomer when still in the liquid stage. The salt is then removed upon the elastomer’s hardening. To seal an organ or prosthetic so air or fluid can be pumped through it without escaping, the outside of the organ is coated with the polymer, minus the salt. This prevents the external layer from also becoming permeable and ‘leaking’ fluid.

Because of the material’s porous channels and effective seal-ability, researchers hope that a functional human heart could be created from the material. They were, in fact, able to create a pump shaped like a human heart, which was able to pump at realistic speeds. However, its current size and limitations mean that it is not yet ready for vital human use. "We need to make it smaller and we need to make it pump harder. All these things we think are very achievable," explained mechanical engineering professor Robert Shepherd.

Image from Cornell

The 3D-printed heart, made from elastomeric foam, can pump fluid at a higher volume and allow greater airflow than other artificial hearts made from metals and plastics. “Instead of taking a bunch of nuts and bolts and screws and building and screwing them together and assembling them, we can just take a mold and inject our material and create a machine. What we've done is make a foam rubber that we can mold with any shape and then cause it to inflate where ever we want," explains Shepherd. The silicone on the outside of the heart is yet to be approved by the FDA, so it must be replaced if the heart is ever to be used in an actual human body. Additionally, the higher temperatures inside a human body provide a different atmosphere to that of the initial testing, so further research needs to be conducted before such an artificial heart could be used for its intended purpose.

Whilst the creation of a 3D printed artificial heart remains the ultimate goal for Shepherd and co, they first hope to create a more simple device which will assist rather than replace the heart. "So for that we actually want to make a shape that wraps around the heart and then helps squeeze it," Said Shepherd. After taking CAT and MRI scans of the hearts of patients, a tailored device can be designed and printed which will wrap around the heart and push it rhythmically to assist the organ’s natural function. "Instead of using an impeller blade to pump it, we would just push that ventricle with our machine so we don't have to actually cause damage to the heart. We can simply give it a little bit of an assist.”

The researchers have been working on using the material to replicate other organs besides the heart. In a separate study published last month, Shepherd and his team developed a 3D-printed elastomer which could successfully mimic the muscles of an octopus tentacle. The result was an artificial tentacle with a level of agility and freedom of movement comparable to the real thing. The findings of that study can be found here.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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