For the 200 million people worldwide with lung disease, current artificial lungs aren't much of a solution — they're heavy, external and short-lived. A new respiratory system from the University of Illinois, however, could help patients breathe easier.
Current artificial lungs can only use pure oxygen, and therefore require huge, heavy tanks of the stuff, due to their terrible gas exchange inefficiencies. This shortcoming also limits the functional lifetime of the lung itself, which is measured in days, not weeks. The new artificial lung prototype developed by researchers at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland could revolutionise the treatment of lung disease because it's efficient enough to use the oxygen in atmospheric air.
The prototype that CWRU developed is based on the real lung's design and minuscule dimensions. Its breathable silicone "blood vessels" mimic the capillary network surrounding natural alveoli, with diameters less than a quarter of that of a human hair. The lung itself is constructed from a detailed mould with layers of silicone laid down to create the intricate network of vessels and aveoli. Initial tests using pig's blood showed a gas transfusion efficiency 3-5 times that of current gen artificial lungs, right at the efficiency threshold for using atmospheric oxygen. It's so efficient that the system could potentially be implanted in the patient.
"Based on current device performance, we estimate that a unit that could be used in humans would be about 6 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches tall, or about the volume of the human lung. In addition, the device could be driven by the heart and would not require a mechanical pump," said Joe Potkay, a research assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University.
Don't think this is an excuse to start that smoking habit you've been putting off though. Clinical trials are still about a decade away.
Top image of generic green lung rendering via Shutterstock.