This 3-D-Printed Membrane Could Keep Hearts Beating Indefinitely

The custom-fitted membrane, which wraps around the heart like a glove, could monitor the organ’s vitals–and deliver a jolt of electricity during arrhythmia.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have 3-D-printed an electronic membrane worn on the heart that could keep the organ beating indefinitely.

The flexible custom-fitted silicon membrane wraps around the heart like a glove, and its embedded sensors can measure temperature, mechanical strain, and pH as well as deliver a pulse of electricity when the heart beats irregularly. It’s possible the membrane, which could be used in patients in 15 years, could also include a sensor to measure troponin, a protein that, when released in high levels, could signal a heart attack. The video above shows a demonstration of the membrane over a rabbit’s heart.

Igor Efimov, a professor at Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, said similar existing medical devices have contact with tissue at one to two points. “Each heart is a different shape, and current devices are one-size-fits-all and don’t at all conform to the geometry of a patient’s heart,” he said. “What we want to create is an approach that will allow you to have numerous points of contact and to correct the problem with high-definition diagnostics and high-definition therapy.”

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.