End-stage pulmonary disease affects over 150,000 patients per year in the U.S. The most common treatment is mechanical ventilation, and although mechanical ventilators have come a long way, they are still costly and have their own inherent risk. Several years ago, when I was first researching artificial lung technology, only one company (Alung) had a working prototype, but now, there are several companies developing unique technologies, accelerating the development of a practical artificial lung.
One of the leading artificial lung researchers, Dr. Theodor Kolobow, MD, pointed out some of the problems with mechanical ventilators. He said, Once you get them on a vent, it is hard to get them off, especially once they get an acute infection. You can also damage the lungs by forcing air into them.
However, Dr. Kolobow also discussed some solutions. Using an oxygenating catheter was one of the first solutions, but depending on what the patient needs, you may need huge blood flow. Now, they are working with micro capillaries because it has the capability to increase the oxygen transfer. With COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), this is a good starting point because there is more of a problem with removing CO2 than providing oxygen. So, you only need to oxygenate 20 to 30% to treat the patient, and since the blood flow is much less, it is much easier to treat. Ultimately, COPD patients will be candidates for lung transplantation, he said.
Studies have been promising. When studied as a bridge to a transplant, thoracic artificial lung technology was found to be suitable for up to seven days of life support. Patients were also found to be healthier at the time of transplantation, thus, increasing their chances of survival.
So, where are we? First, life-supporting bridge technology will become available. Then, systems will target long-term COPD patients to help them overcome the risks of mechanical ventilation. When all critical lung diseases are taken into account, over 400,000 patients per year could benefit from this technology that is right around the corner.