Given the sheer complexity of the mechanisms involved, artificial hearts tend to come with a variety of risks, from blood clots to device malfunctions. It doesn’t help that the human body also has a tendency to reject the metal and plastic instruments currently in use, which look more like car parts than organic tissue.      

As possible alternative, a team at ETH Zurich’s has not only printed a heart from silicon, this artificial heart beats much like a human organ. The researchers claim their artificial organ is the first prosthetic heart that’s entirely soft, designed to mimic the shape and movement of the human heart as closely as possible. Created using 3D-printing techniques, the artificial organ is designed to have left and right ventricles, and to pump blood without the need of complex inner mechanisms.

Unlike its organic counterpart, the scientists’ heart comes with an extra chamber, located between the ventricles that fills and deflates to act like the organ’s muscle. This addition aside, the silicon prosthetic looks a lot like a real heart, especially when the researchers demonstrate it pumping a blood substitute as if it’s a low-budget sci-fi horror prop.

The heart is only a proof of concept, and currently won’t last longer than 3,000 beats – which equates to around half an hour – but the team intends to improve the strength of the material in further iterations.

“As a mechanical engineer, I would never have thought that I would ever hold a soft heart in my hands,” said Anastasios Petrou, a doctoral student on the project. “I’m now so fascinated by this research that I would very much like to continue working on the development of artificial hearts.”

One potential solution to the longevity problem could the use of 3D-printed biological tissue instead of silicon. Last year in Australia, a hospital became the first to feature a unit dedicated to developing 3D tissue printing. While the technology is still nascent, the Australian minister for health said at the time he hoped biological printers could one day “sit in operating theatres, ready to print tissue as needed”.

A core problem plaguing 3D-printed biological organs is the question of how to supply blood to the artificial tissue. A 3D-printed heart might be a good place to start.   

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