Revolutionizing Cardiac Care : The Journey of the Hybrid Heart

January 22, 2024

A multidisciplinary consortium of researchers and high-tech SMEs with expertise in cardiac surgery, tissue engineering, soft robotics, and engineering is spearheading a healthcare revolution with the development of the Hybrid Heart. Their mission is to provide a lasting cure for heart failure patients by developing and clinically introducing a biocompatible artificial heart. This heart features a soft robotics shell with artificial muscles and sensors for natural motion, alongside a tissue-engineered inner lining to ensure biocompatibility with blood-contacting surfaces. Join us for an insightful interview with Carlijn Bouten, professor of cell-matrix interactions for cardiovascular regeneration at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and a key member of the Holland Heart Consortium.

Carlijn, can you provide an overview of the Hybrid Heart project?

“Hybrid Heart is designed to integrate soft robotics with biological components to aid patients with advanced heart failure. We face limitations in current treatments, such as the scarcity of organ donors for heart transplants and complications from mechanical alternatives. Our endeavor is to pave the way for a sustainable future for patients at any stage of life. With substantial support from the NWA-ORC—a prominent research funding initiative from NWO—we plan to build and test the Hybrid Heart extensively so we can start the first human implantation after seven years.”

A Starfish was the initial spark for this project, how did that come to be?

“Jolanda Kluin, chief cardiothoracic surgeon of Erasmus MC, saw a movie of a soft robotic starfish a few years ago. She was amazed by the concept and the possibilities for healthcare. Jolanda contacted Bas Overvelde, soft robotics researcher at Amolf and myself to investigate whether these technologies could be used in building a heart. The spark ignited and a few years later we have a strong consortium rooted and funded in the Netherlands. Our dream started with a starfish, but we dream of helping actual patients with critical heart problems.”

What are the most significant challenges in the Hybrid Heart project?

“The principal challenge is the seamless integration of soft robotics, tissue engineering, and cardiac surgery into a harmonious design, akin to constructing an electric vehicle with autonomous interoperating parts. Our core objective is to synthesize these varied technologies into a single, operational heart.”

What role does the ‘living lining’ play in the Hybrid Heart?

“It’s designed to prevent thrombosis and immune reactions to the heart implant by emulating the body’s natural processes. This living lining must harmonize with the mechanical movements, creating a delicate balance between biological and synthetic components under perpetual motion.”

How does collaboration with SBMC enhance your project?

“SBMC plays an instrumental role in transitioning our research milestones to tangible patient treatments. They assist in standardizing and reproducing our experiments in diverse settings, which is essential for expediting the journey from discovery to clinical practice.”

What potential applications beyond medicine might arise from the Hybrid Heart project?

“The collaborative nature of our project may catalyze innovations across various sectors. Insights from our work could influence the materials used in other medical implants and consumer electronics. Moreover, our advancements in soft robotics hold promise for applications ranging from agriculture to manufacturing.”

Why is this consortium specifically suited to the challenge?

“The consortium consists of three vital parts: academia, industry, and patient organizations. The patient organizations will help us create a Hybrid Heart that will meet the needs of our intended recipients. The six universities in this consortium each have a unique role to play in designing and testing the Heart. The industrial partners, such as SBMC, will help us focus the research so that the Hybrid Heart can be produced for patients.”

Can the Hybrid Heart accommodate growth, particularly in pediatric patients?

“Although the current design isn’t capable of expansion, we are looking into research avenues that involve the development of growing heart components. Such advancements could eventually provide more permanent solutions.”

What are your immediate plans for the Hybrid Heart project in 2024?

“This year marks the beginning of a new chapter, emphasizing even greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. We’re setting out to brainstorm and shape preliminary concepts—a stage that always ignites excitement and innovation.”

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