Buying time for new lungs

  • Updated: July 5, 2014 - 3:03 PM

An experimental device works as dialysis for lungs.

“That machine is a lifesaver. You get a call at the last second … that’s a miracle. ” Jon Sacker

Jon Sacker was near death, too sick for doctors to attempt the double lung transplant he needed. His only chance: A 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, 33, 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,” said Sacker, whose first set of lungs were destroyed by cystic fibrosis and whose second set were damaged by an infection.

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 devices that could do the lungs’ two jobs — supplying oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide — without tethering patients to a bulky 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.

Thousands each year suffer acute lung failure from trauma or disease that hits too suddenly to even consider transplant.

Sacker doesn’t remember the fight for his life; he was sedated. But his wife has told him how touch and go it was. “We had actually just almost decided to turn the ventilator off, because we were putting him through suffering,” said Sacker’s wife, Sallie. Then the phone rang: The experiment was on.

“You get a call at the last second about a device that has never been used here in the United States — that’s a miracle,” he said.

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