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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt Researchers Think A Wearable Artificial Lung Could Be In The Near Future

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
William J. Federspiel holds the prototypes of his wearable artificial lungs. Production models will be made much smaller.

Artificial lungs have been around for decades, but they’re usually large devices that force the patient to remain in a hospital bed until their lungs improve or they’re able to undergo a lung transplant. 

But University of Pittsburgh Medical Devices Laboratory Director Bill Federspiel has developed a more mobile, wearable device.

“It’s pretty well established in the literature that if you can get these patients up and moving around, they do better,” Federspiel said. “Whether it’s recovering from their illness or doing better with their post-transplant outcomes.”

An artificial lung, at the most basic level, takes blood out of a person, passes it over porous fibers filled with oxygen gas and then pumps the now oxygenated blood back into their body.

“What distinguishes this technology is that we’ve combined the blood pump and the lung unit into one compact unit so that they would be able to ambulate around in the clinical setting,” Federspiel said.

The device is roughly the diameter of small coffee can, one-third the height and can be worn in a vest or belt. That all means it takes less blood out of the patient to fill the tubing and the device. 

Federspiel said by doing that, one device could be used in three types of patients: adults who need a low-flow CO2 removal device, adults who need a higher-flow oxygenation device and pediatric patients who need a high-flow device.

While there are only about 200 pediatric patient in the U.S. each year who need such devices, there are between 10,000 and 50,000 adult patients who need the higher-flow assistance, according to Federspiel. He said there are an additional 100,000 to 300,000 patients in the U.S. who need the CO2 removal devices.

Federspiel said just making a pediatric device might not be commercially viable, but building a multi-use device that can be used by children could open the door to saving young lives.

One day, Federspiel said he hopes to improve the device enough that a person can wear it home, rather than have to remain in the hospital. He said, in the meantime, they will continue to work on perfecting the fibers that oxygenate the blood.

“We’ve designed it for more efficient gas exchange than commercial oxygenators, probably two to three times more efficient,” he said.

The team is also working with researchers at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Pitt to make the fibers more “bio-compatible” by covering them with a proprietary coating. The coating would allow the fibers to work better, for a longer period of time before needing to be replaced.

The wearable artificial lung is currently being tested in animals.

If all goes well with those trials, and if he can raise the financial support he needs, Federspiel said the first human trial could begin in as little as two years.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • The University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering has been awarded more than $1.25 million by the US Department of Energy to conduct collaborative research aimed at advancing innovative nuclear technologies.  Pitt’s Kevin Chen will lead the effort to develop sensors that can be placed in a nuclear reactor’s core to improve safety and efficiency. The school says the work will focus on the fabrication of optic sensors using additive manufacturing and advanced laser fabrication techniques.
  • NATO's secretary-general says the 29-member alliance is supplying hardware to the Ukrainian government to help protect its government networks from cyberattacks. The secretary-general says NATO is in the process of providing key Ukrainian government institutions with new equipment.  He declined to offer any specifics other than to say the gear would "help Ukraine investigate who is behind the different attacks." The country has recently been hit by a series of powerful cyberattacks. Kiev blames Russia for the intrusions, charges the Kremlin denies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Election night results for Pennsylvania governor, the U.S. Senate race, and the 12th and 17th congressional districts.