Kid’s toy inspires device that could help pediatric surgeons

By Greg Hamilton • Published: November 7th, 2017
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Each year, tens of thousands of children in the United States undergo surgeries for heart problems, scoliosis and bone disorders. Frequently, these procedures involve implanting medical devices that may fix the immediate problem but aren’t considered long-term solutions. That’s because the devices stay the same size while the child grows, and that usually involves more surgeries to remove and replace them.

Now, Harvard scientists believe they have a solution. They have developed a device that changes shape over time to accommodate growth, which could mean much longer periods between replacements.

The concept borrows from the braided tube finger-trap toys that you may have played with as a kid. In this case, instead of covering your forefingers, the braided tube surrounds a biodegradable polymer that can go over a heart valve or bones. As the polymer shrinks over time, the sleeve elongates under pressure from the growing tissue around it. Plus, since the device is made up of only two main elements, the designers say it will be much more durable than what is used today. In tests involving animal models, the device had very promising results.

The team also tackled the question of how to predict a child’s growth rate, as some kids grow faster than others. They proposed using different polymers that degrade at different rates based on systems already used to measure heart and bone growth.

The researchers envision the device as a potential game-changer for heart and orthopaedic surgeries involving children. If the device is proved to be safe and effective in patients, it could also be used to create other implants.