Researchers are developing an artificial lung that fits in a backpack
So far there have not been made substantial developments on replacing a damaged lung, because the sophisticated organ is not easy to copy. Everything could change in a few years, due to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, who designed an artificial lung, which fits in a backpack.
William Federspiel, a bioengineering researcher and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been working for the past 20 years on designing an artificial lung. “The technology for patients who have lung failure is way behind the technology for people with heart failure,” he says. “It comes down to a pretty simple fact: It’s pretty easy to design a small pump that can pump blood at the flow rate the heart does”.
“But the lung is just an incredible organ for exchanging gas between the atmosphere and the blood that’s flowing through your lungs. There’s no technology that’s ever been able to come close to what the human lung can do.”
Federspiel and his research team already invented a device called the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System (RAS) that performs what’s described as “respiratory dialysis,” removing carbon dioxide from a patient’s blood. It’s being produced by a Pittsburgh startup Federspiel founded called ALung Technologies, and could undergo testing in U.S. clinical trials late this year or early 2018. It’s already been approved for use in Europe, Canada and Australia, according to Smithsonian.com.
Now they’ve applied for a patent on a much smaller device, which is designed to raise the oxygen levels in a person’s blood. Also, earlier this year, the researchers received a $2.35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a version of their artificial lung for children.
Federspiel’s latest research is focused on refining an artificial lung that functions outside the body, but that is small enough to be carried inside a backpack or holster. It would be connected to the patient’s vena cava—a large vein carrying blood into the heart—through a cannula, or tube, inserted in the jugular vein in the throat. Still, patients would still need to breathe oxygen from a portable tank.
According to Federspiel, it would allow patients to be more mobile in the hospital, because if they can’t move around, their muscles become weaker, and their chances of recovering from a serious lung infection decrease. The device is seen as being particularly beneficial for patients waiting for a lung transplant, such as people with cystic fibrosis.
“We’re not intending right now that they would be able to leave the hospital with one of these systems,” he says, “but at least within the hospital, they’d be able to get up and walk around.”
The device meant to raise blood oxygen levels has to support a heavier blood flow than the machine that lowers carbon dioxide. As Federspiel points out, the problem is that the blood passing through comes in contact with a relatively large artificial surface, increasing the chance that clots will form. Thus, they would likely need to be replaced every few months and, therefore, it’s not realistic at this point to consider implanting lung devices like this inside a patient’s body.
According to Federspiel, his team tested the new device on sheep for five days without any problems. Sheep are used because their cardiovascular systems are similar to humans’.
He and his team are also working with a company to develop special coatings to reduce clotting, in order to allow doctors to lower the level of anti-coagulation drugs patients would need to take.
Then, he says, it follows a 30-day animal trial that would compare the results of devices both with the coating and without it. He estimates that human clinical trials could still be four to five years away.