It looks like a real heart. It moves like a real heart. And while it won’t be taking over the job of a real heart any time soon, it does hint at a future of smaller and more human-like artificial organs.
This new silicone heart was developed by researchers at the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. It’s built using 3-D printing techniques, which are increasingly popular for creating synthetic organs, in order to create an internal structure that mimics that of a real human heart, with right and left ventricles.
Unlike the real thing, though, it also includes a central chamber that can be inflated and deflated by an external pump—essentially acting as the muscle. But there’s a bigger limitation than its need for external drive. As the team reports in the journal Artificial Organs, the silicone begins to degrade after 3,000 beats—equivalent to about 45 minutes, which would make it little use in practice.
Even so, the device does suggest that it might be possible to create better artificial hearts in the coming years. Most current devices use mechanical approaches to pump blood, which can develop faults and can damage the blood they’re pumping. An artificial heart more closely based on human physiology could overcome those issues.
Then again, the best alternative might be to build whole new biological organs from scratch in the lab—but that’s still a little way off yet.