Tel Aviv University unveiled a remote-controlled, bionic heart patch, which researchers say could become a revolutionary alternative to heart transplants for patients whose hearts have been damaged by heart attacks or cardiac disease.

The patch expands and contracts like a human heart, but regulates itself like a machine and can be paced and programmed to release drugs from afar.

“It’s very science fiction, but it’s already here, and we expect it to move cardiac research forward in a big way,” said Prof. Tal Dvir, who pioneered the invention with PhD student Ron Feiner.

“Until now, we could only engineer organic cardiac tissue, with mixed results. Now we have produced viable bionic tissue, which ensures that the heart tissue will function properly,” he said in a statement issued Monday by American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

Tal_Dvir (Tel Aviv University)

Tal_Dvir (Tel Aviv University)

The Cyborg Cardiac Patch, details of which have been published in the journal Nature Materials, combines real, living cardiac cells able to expand and contract with engineered tissue packed with nano-electronics that can sense what is happening in the patch, provide electrical stimulation and — via electro-active polymers — release growth stimulants or drugs and harness stem cells.

“Imagine that a patient is just sitting at home, not feeling well,” Dvir said. “His physician will be able to log onto his computer and this patient’s file — in real time. He can view data sent remotely from sensors embedded in the engineered tissue and assess exactly how his patient is doing. He can intervene to properly pace the heart and activate drugs to regenerate tissue from afar.

Doctors operate on a patient at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

File: Doctors perform open heart surgery on a patient at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“The longer-term goal is for the cardiac patch to be able to regulate its own welfare. In other words, if it senses inflammation, it will release an anti-inflammatory drug. If it senses a lack of oxygen, it will release molecules that recruit blood-vessel-forming cells to the heart,” he said.

Ron Feiner (Tel Aviv University)

Ron Feiner (Tel Aviv University)

Dvir is currently examining how the concept of the patch might apply to treating neurological conditions in the brain and spinal cord.

“This is a breakthrough, to be sure,” he said. “But I would not suggest bingeing on cheeseburgers or quitting sports just yet.

“The practical realization of the technology may take some time. Meanwhile, a healthy lifestyle is still the best way to keep your heart healthy.”