Robo-heart could solve organ transplant crisis

Sarah Knapton
20 people will die each year in Britain waiting for a heart transplant   - Getty Images Contributor

A soft robotic heart which would end the need for donor transplants, could be available within a decade, after scientists set out plans to build a hybrid organ from stem cells and biotech.

The cyber-heart has been shortlisted for £30 million in funding from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) for ‘radical new approaches’ to curing major heart conditions.

It is the brainchild of a team of Dutch scientists who are hoping it will solve the organ shortage crisis.

Lead researcher Professor Jolanda Kluin, of Amsterdam University Medical Centre (UMC), said she was inspired after seeing a robot starfish, with soft supple limbs that could expand and contract like heart muscle.

“There is a need for radical new solution,” she told a briefing in London to announce the shortlist.

“We’re decades away from building a living heart from a patient’s own cells, if we will ever be able to do it, but some three years ago I saw a picture in a Dutch newspaper, a picture of a soft robotic starfish, and it could move and swim like a living starfish.

“Suddenly I saw the potential for merging the benefits of biology with power of soft robotics, for a hybrid heart, the first ever solution for end stage heart failure. Soft robotic artificial cardiac muscles precisely mimic the human heart, so the hybrid heart really beats like a real heart. And it is lined by the patient's own cells preventing clotting, infection and reaction.

“The energy transfer is wireless so that the patient experiences real freedom.”

The pumping heart would be powered through a jacket which would connect with a coil beneath the skin, transferring power wirelessly, like a mobile phone charger. A separate battery would also be in built so that patients could swim and bathe.

There are around 7 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK and 152,000 will die each year. For many a heart transplant is the only option but donors are limited. 

In the 2018/2019 there were just 178 heart transplants were performed in Britain but 286 were left on the waiting list, and around 20 patients die while waiting for a heart each year. 

Even when a donor heart is available, the body may reject the organ, and patients must be placed on strong drugs to dampen down their immune system which puts them at risk of infections and complications.

Prof Kluin added: “It really hurt when I saw my father, you know, dying of heart failure,  After a life of hard working and fleet of plans for his retirement. 

“It was hard to see him knowing there was nothing doctors could do.”

Three other projects that could bring significant benefits to patients were also shortlisted for the multi-million prize fund. 

They included research looking at how to tweak or edit the genes of people suffering from inherited heart conditions.

Professor Hugh Watkins of Oxford University and Dr Christine Seidman of Harvard Medical School, said fixing genetic problems could help around 176,000 in Britain avoid life-threatening heart problems.

Prof Watkins and his team were the first to discover the genetic basis of many heart conditions more than 20 years ago, but until now there has been no way of using that information to make a difference.

“The only treatments we have don't get it the root cause of the problem,” he said. “They just lessen symptoms.”

The other projects involve creating a vaccine for heart attacks and strokes, and developing wearable technology to monitor heart conditions in real time.

The BHF will announce the winner later this year.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We’re taking small steps forward every year but what’s needed is a giant leap, which won’t be achieved by a business-as-usual approach. 

“The Big Beat Challenge embodies our ambition to turbo-charge progress and could lead to its own ‘man on the moon’ moment.”