This Artificial Lung Can Fit Inside a Backpack

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Hospital patients may soon get a breathing assist from an artificial lung that can fit inside a small carrying bag.

A new device, for which researchers from the University of Pittsburgh recently filed a patent application, is designed to boost a person’s oxygen levels through an intricate system that connects an external respiratory aid directly to the bloodstream.

Credit: William Federspiel via Smithsonian.com

While it’s comprised of some high-tech elements, the artificial lung is small enough to fit in a holster or backpack, enabling a user to be on their feet while using it.

“We’re not intending right now that they would be able to leave the hospital with one of these systems, but at least within the hospital, they’d be able to get up and walk around,” William Federspiel, a bioengineer and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told Smithsonian.com.

Previously, Federspiel developed an artificial lung device that could decrease the amount of carbon dioxide circulating in a patient’s bloodstream, but the new device is one of the first to actively drive up oxygen levels.

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“The gas exchange unit [in the device] is composed of a large number of polymer tubes that are about twice the thickness of a human hair,” Federspiel further explained. “They’re permeable to gas, so when blood is flowing on the outside of these tubes, we run 100 percent oxygen through the inside of the tubes. The oxygen moves into the blood by diffusion and carbon dioxide moves out of the blood into the gas stream flowing through the device.”

The ability for a sick patient to get up and move around is important because remaining in bed leads to muscle loss and a lesser chance of overcoming illness.

Mimicking an ‘Incredible Organ’

Federspiel and his team recently tested the artificial lung on sheep for a period of five days and encountered no problems. They plan to test the device in animals for a longer period before moving ahead to clinical trials in humans, which could be several years down the road.

The researchers have hit a few roadblocks during their development of the new device, especially with clotting issues. As the device is constructed, a large portion of blood comes into contact with an external surface, which can lead to blood clotting. But that challenge is simply one reason why the lungs are such impressive parts of the body, said Federspiel.

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“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 said.

He hopes that his groundbreaking work can help move lung devices closer to the state of assistive mechanisms for other organs.

“The technology for patients who have lung failure is way behind the technology for people with heart failure,” added Federspiel. “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.”

In February, Federspiel’s team received a $2.35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop an artificial lung device specifically for children, which should open up additional opportunities to bring the device to patients in need.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.