Irish researchers have developed a soft robotic device that fits around a heart and helps it to beat.

The invention raises the future possibility of a new form of treatment for patients suffering from heart failure.

The device takes the form of a sleeve that wraps around the outside of the heart and squeezes and twists it in synch with the natural heart beat.

The big advantage of the new device is that unlike other forms of treatment, it doesn't come in contact with blood, reducing the risk of clotting, stroke and the need for the patient to take blood thinning drugs.

It is attached to the heart using a gel, sutures and a suction device. It is then connected to an external pump, and this powers the soft actuators.

The device was developed by NUI Galway and Harvard post-doctoral researcher, Dr Ellen Roche, along with Professor Conor Walsh, an Irish engineer based at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Boston based university. 

The current treatments for heart failure are medical management, transplant or use of ventricular assist devices or VADs.

These pump blood from the ventricles of the heart to the aorta, but because they come in direct contact with the blood they can cause dangerous side effects, including stroke and clots.

"The novelty of this device is that it doesn't contact the blood," said Dr Roche. 

"Additionally we can actuate different parts of it independently so we can tailor the movement of the device to the patient's needs."

"We can transfer both a compression motion and a twisting motion to the heart which mimics the way the heart beats itself."

A Trinity College Dublin graduate, Professor Walsh established Harvard's bio-design laboratory where he and colleagues are developing a range of other soft robotics which have the potential to help people with disabilities.

According to the Irish Heart Foundation, 90,000 people in Ireland are suffering from heart failure with 10,000 new cases reported every year.

The condition also affects 41 million people worldwide.

The new device has been trialled in the lab and in animals, with excellent proof of concept results. 

However, it is likely to be between three and five years before it has been refined, tested and approved for use in humans.

Dr Roche said she expects refinements will include trying to make it wireless.

It's hoped that the device could become a bridge to transplants or could be worn by a patient suffering from heart failure for the rest of their life.

"This research is really significant at the moment because more and more people are surviving heart attacks and ending up with heart failure," said Dr Roche.

"Soft robotic devices are ideally suited to interact with soft tissue and give assistance that can help augmentation of function and potentially even healing and recovery."

The research, a collaboration between Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Wyss Institute and Boston Children's Hospital, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.