Researchers have used a 3D optical scanner and 3D printer to help create an elastic membrane lined with sensors to monitor and regulate a beating heart.
The artificial jacket slips over the heart to monitor electrical activity, temperature, pH level and strain. It can even stimulate the heart both thermally and electrically if it stops beating or begins behaving erratically.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can also be attached to monitor variables like blood oxygen content.
"It looks a lot like a biological membrane," University of Illinois Professor of Material Science and Engineering John Rogers said.
The project is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University in Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis.
In addition to overseeing the entire project, Rogers was also responsible for making the artificial jacket. After scanning the heart, he used a ZPrinter 450 to 3D print an exact replica, only 20 percent smaller.
The artificial jacket was made out of an ultra-thin layer of rubber silicone to fit the smaller model in order to insure a tight fight on the actual heart.
"The physical coupling is crucial," Rogers said. "(The sleeve) has to be smaller, but not too much smaller or it will interfere with the functioning of the heart. You have to pay attention to the mechanics."
A similar process was attempted back in the 80s, but the technology just wasn't where it needed to be at the time. Researchers then used essentially a burlap sack around the heart, and all of the electrical equipment was too bulky to be practical.
"Work from the 80s involved a similar overall concept, but the materials were totally different, the mechanics were lacking and the sensors were quite simple," Rogers said.
The artificial jacket is actually on a disembodied heart which is suspended in a nutrient bath and kept pumping artificially. Rogers hopes to try it on live animals by the end of the year in order to move on to humans.
"Our goal is to get it into the real world where it can do some good, but we know it's a long process," he said.