Coral tentacles inspire bio-sock shown to treat Deep Vein Thrombosis

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The robotic sock developed at the National University of Singapore to treat Deep Vein Thrombosis (Photo: National University of Singapore)

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The onset of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), whereby a clot forms in the veins and obstructs blood flow, is a legitimate concern for people unable to move their legs. The condition can become truly life-threatening if the clot finds its way into the pulmonary artery, which carries deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Looking to mitigate the dangers of this condition, researchers have developed a specialty sock inspired by the tentacle movements of coral that is designed to stimulate blood circulation through the body.

There are already a number of existing approaches to treating DVT. These include mechanical techniques, such as compression stocking, that stimulate blood flow, and pharmacological solutions that use anticoagulant medicines to minimize the chances of the blood clotting.

A team of researchers from National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and Faculty of Engineering is of the view that these treatment methods could be improved upon. It says that the use of compression stockings are yet to show significant reduction in preventing DVT, and that a dangerous side effect of drug treatment is an increased risk of excessive bleeding, particularly for those who have experienced a stroke.

In developing the new device, the team focused on the ability of muscles in the human ankle that, when mobile, aid in the flow of blood back to the heart. If this function could be replicated in patients confined to a bed or unable to move their legs as normal, it was hoped it could form the basis for more effective form of treatment.

The team saw similarities in the movement of these ankle muscles and the structure and function of coral tentacles. Just as these tentacles stretch out to latch onto food, the researchers developed soft actuators that perform the same action, that pull and push motion. Building these actuators into a sock and combining it with a pneumatic pump-valve control system, the device was found to be effective in recreating the ankle muscle movements integral to blood flow in the legs.

At present, the sock could be used to complement existing ankle therapy conducted on bed-ridden patients to improve effectiveness and lessen the length of treatments, or worn over longer periods in addition to manual therapy sessions. It also includes sensors to track the motion of the joint for better monitoring.

The team plans on conducting clinical trials over the next six months with a view to improving and ultimately commercializing the device.

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