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July 6, 2014

Device buys time for new lungs

WASHINGTON — Jon Sacker was near death, too sick for doctors to attempt the double lung transplant he so desperately needed. His only chance: An experimental machine that essentially works like dialysis for the lungs.

But the device has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and there were none in the country. It would take an overnight race into Canada to retrieve a Hemolung.

Sacker rapidly improved as the device cleansed his blood of carbon dioxide — so much so that in mid-March, 20 days later, he got a transplant after all.

“That machine is a lifesaver,” Sacker said from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Sacker’s struggle highlights a critical void: There is no fully functioning artificial lung to buy time for someone awaiting a transplant, like patients who need a new heart can stay alive with an implanted heart pump or those with failing kidneys can turn to dialysis.

“It seems like it should be possible for the lung as well,” said Dr. Andrea Harabin of the National Institutes of Health.

NIH-funded researchers are working to develop wearable “respiratory assist devices” that could do the lungs’ two jobs — supplying oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide — without tethering patients to a bulky bedside machine.

It has proven challenging.

“The lung is an amazing organ for gas exchange. It’s not so easy to develop a mechanical device that can essentially replace the function of a lung,” said bioengineer William Federspiel of Pitt’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who helped invent the bedside Hemolung and is working on these next-step devices.

So when Sacker needed an emergency fix, Dr. Christian Bermudez, UPMC’s chief of cardiothoracic transplants, gambled on the unapproved Hemolung. “We had no other options,” he said.

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