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expert reaction to a self-powered pacemaker in pigs

Research published in Nature Communications describes a pacemaker that uses harvested biomechanical energy from cardiac motion which achieves energy harvesting and storage as well as cardiac pacing on a large-animal scale.

Dr Charles Pearman, Clinical lecturer in Cardiovascular Science, University of Manchester, said:

“Pacemakers are medical devices commonly used to treat patients whose hearts are beating too slowly. This paper describes a new technology to generate electricity that, if improved, could be used to power pacemakers in the future by harnessing electricity from the heart’s own muscle.  The generator the researchers tested on pigs works in a similar manner to the static electricity that can be seen when a balloon is rubbed on a jumper, in a process called the triboelectric effect. 

“However, the generator that has been tested powered a pacemaker for only one minute after requiring more than an hour’s worth of heartbeats to charge it up.  The technology as it stands would therefore need to be significantly more efficient at extracting energy to be useful for those who require their pacemakers to function continuously.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said:

“This innovative technology moves us closer to a pacemaker that needs no batteries and is powered by a device that converts heart muscle contractions into electrical energy. 

“The device is a thin sheet that is attached to the surface of the heart. When the heart beats, the sheet bends and generates electricity for the pacemaker.

“Despite being an exciting development, much more research is needed to understand whether this technology would be durable in humans and can generate enough power to meet the body’s demands.”

Prof Tim Chico, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist, University of Sheffield, said:

“Millions of patients undergo insertion of pacemakers to treat fast or slow heart rhythms. These are very effective but unfortunately battery life is limited. To replace the battery requires another operation every few years which poses a risk of infection. The present study hopes to get rid of the need for battery replacement by developing a self-powering pacemaker.

“This is a fascinating study where instead of using a battery, a pacemaker was powered by the triboelectric effect. The triboelectric effect generates electricity due to the movement of different surfaces away from each other and is the cause of static electricity. In this study, the energy harvesting device was implanted around the heart, and every time the heart beat it generated more electricity to charge a pacemaker. This study was performed in pigs, whose hearts are the same size as humans, and so are often used to test devices or treatments before use in man.

“The study results are very encouraging but there is a lot of work to be done before it might be used in humans. The energy harvest device needed to be inserted around the heart in open heart surgery, which is a lot more invasive than is needed for current pacemakers and would greatly limit who could have this. However, the device could use movement from other muscles rather than the heart, so this should not be a problem. People who need the pacemaker to work a lot or all of the time, or to deliver defibrillation use a lot more electricity and so it is important that any self-powering device has enough stored energy for these situations.”

‘Symbiotic cardiac pacemaker’ by Han Ouyang et al. was published in Nature Communications at 16:00 UK time on Tuesday 23 April 2019.

Declared interests

Prof Tim Chico: “no conflicts”

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