Robotics breakthrough could lead to better outcomes for implanted devices

Research paves the way for longer lasting pacemakers, biosensors and insulin delivery systems

 Dr Eimear Dolan: looking to the next stage of the research

Dr Eimear Dolan: looking to the next stage of the research


Irish researchers have made a breakthrough in robotics that could lead to better outcomes and treatments for patients requiring implanted devices – such as pacemakers, biosensors or insulin delivery systems – by reducing the body’s natural response foreign bodies.

The research, published in journal Science Robotics, could lead to longer lasting and better functioning of devices.

The work was carried out by a team of researchers at National University of Ireland Galway, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Science Foundation Ireland research centre Amber over almost two years.

“One of the big problems with any type of implant that you put into the body is you have a foreign body response, because it’s a foreign material going in. What the body does is it walls it off, and with a kind of fibrous capsule,” said Garry Duffy, professor in anatomy at NUIG and Amber principal investigator, who was senior co-author of the report.

“If your implant has any potential function – if it’s a drug delivery implant, or sensor – that fibrous capsule will reduce the efficiency of the implant. That’s what we’re really targeting.”

The paper looks at the use of soft robotics that actuate or oscillate to a certain frequency and pressure to interact with the body, and reduce the foreign body response. The scientists have created a tiny mechanically actuated soft robotic device, known as a dynamic soft reservoir (DSR), that reduces the build-up of the fibrous capsule through mechanical oscillation, modulating how cells respond around the implant.

“It’s a big problem, this foreign body response to anything implantable,” said Prof Ellen Roche, senior co-author of the study and assistant professor at MIT, and a former researcher at NUI Galway.

“I think this work, while it’s not focused on one specific application, is an interesting step forward. I think it will warrant a lot of further study on application specific purposes.”

Another area that could benefit is breast implants for post mastectomy and breast cancer, where a fibrous capsule forms around the implant and contracts, leading to pain, puckering of the skin and other issues.

Research shows the failure rate of implantable medical devices that can be attributed to fibrosis is 30-50 per cent for implantable pacemakers and 30 per cent for mammoplasty prosthetics.

“If we take the pacemaker as an example, one of the big problems there is when you have a foreign body response, you generally have to increase the electrical stimulus that the pacemaker would release to overcome this. That has a subsequent effect on say, the battery life for the product, because you’re using a higher electrical stimulus to get your gains,” said Prof Duffy.


The market for implantable medical devices market is estimated to be worth $100 billion (€90 billion), but as new technologies for drug delivery and health monitoring are developed, there is significant potential for growth.

Lead author of the study, Dr Eimear Dolan, who lectures on biomedical engineering at NUI Galway, is looking to the next stage of the research. She recently received a Science Foundation Ireland Royal Society university research fellowship to bring this technology forward with a focus on Type 1 diabetes.

“With the fellowship, I’ve proposed to combine two things – develop a bio artificial pancreas, but combine this oscillation to control the foreign body response around it,” she said. “That will hopefully overcome the issues and the problems that have faced those types of devices.”