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Innovation in Soft Robotics Could Lead to Improved and Longer-Lasting Implanted Devices

A team of researchers has recently reported a major breakthrough in soft robotics that could help patients needing in-situ (implanted) medical devices like glucose biosensors, breast implants, neural probes, pacemakers, and drug and cell delivery devices.

Depiction of a soft robotic device known as a dynamic soft reservoir (DSR). (Image courtesy of the researchers)

The team included scientists from the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) at MIT; the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway); and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research.

The implantable medical devices sector is presently estimated at about $100 billion, with substantial growth potential into the future as new technologies for health monitoring and drug delivery are being created. These devices are not free of issues, caused partly by the body’s own protection responses. These complicated and erratic foreign-body responses impair device function and greatly restrict the long-term performance and therapeutic effectiveness of these devices.

Fibrosis is one such foreign body response. It is a process whereby a dense fibrous capsule encompasses the implanted device, which can cause device failure or obstruct its function. Implantable medical devices have several failure rates that can be linked to fibrosis, ranging from 30% to 50% for implantable pacemakers or 30% for mammoplasty prosthetics.

With regards to biosensors or drug/cell delivery devices, the dense fibrous capsule which can surround the implanted device can seriously obstruct its function, with repercussions for the patient and costs to the healthcare system.

A radical new vision for medical devices to address this issue was published in the globally respected journal, Science Robotics. The study was directed by scientists from IMES, NUI Galway, and the SFI research center AMBER, among others. The study explains the use of soft robotics to alter the body’s response to implanted devices. Soft robots are supple devices that can be embedded in the body.

The transatlantic partnership of researchers has developed a miniature, mechanically actuated soft robotic device called a dynamic soft reservoir (DSR) that has been demonstrated to considerably decrease the build-up of the fibrous capsule by exploiting the environment at the interface between the body and the device. The device uses mechanical oscillation to control how cells react around the implant. In a bio-stimulated design, the DSR can alter its shape at microscope scale via an actuating membrane.

IMES core faculty member, assistant professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and W.M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering Ellen Roche, the senior co-author of the study, is a former researcher at NUI Galway who won international acclaim in 2017 for her work in developing a soft robotic sleeve to assist patients with heart failure.

Regarding this study, Roche says “This study demonstrates how mechanical perturbations of an implant can modulate the host foreign body response. This has vast potential for a range of clinical applications and will hopefully lead to many future collaborative studies between our teams.”

We feel the ideas described in this paper could transform future medical devices and how they interact with the body. We are very excited to develop this technology further and to partner with people interested in the potential of soft robotics to better integrate devices for longer use and superior patient outcomes. It’s fantastic to build and continue the collaboration with the Dolan and Roche labs, and to develop a trans-Atlantic network of soft roboticists.

Garry Duffy, Study Senior Co-Author, AMBER Principal Investigator, and Professor in Anatomy, NUI Galway

The study’s first author, Eimear Dolan, lecturer of biomedical engineering at NUI Galway and former scientist in the Roche and Duffy labs at MIT and NUI Galway, states, “We are very excited to publish this study, as it describes an innovative approach to modulate the foreign-body response using soft robotics. I recently received a Science Foundation Ireland Royal Society University Research Fellowship to bring this technology forward with a focus on Type 1 diabetes. It is a privilege to work with such a talented multi-disciplinary team, and I look forward to continuing working together.”


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