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Researchers develop an artificial lung that fits in a backpack

Why it matters to you

Small, portable medical devices can offer patient's newfound mobility.

Engineers at the University of Pittsburgh developed an artificial lung that can be carried in a patient’s backpack. Trials have so far shown that the device works on sheep and could offer relief and mobility for people who suffer from lung failure.

“The disparity between the number of patients that need lung transplants in the availability of lungs to be transplanted means that many patients can wait months for a donor lung,” William Federspiel, who leads the team developing the device, told Digital Trends. “The literature on lung transplants is very clear in that if patients can be mobilized while they wait for a donor lung, the post-transplant outcomes are better.”

William Federspiel

Current systems are big and bulky and inhibit a patient’s ability to get around.  “Our hope is that by having a truly wearable artificial lung these patients will be much more mobile and comfortable as they wait for their donor lungs and a lung transplant,” he added.

To ensure that the lungs functioned properly, Federspiel and his team worked with a group from the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine to develop a special coating that reduces the incidence of blood clotting within the device. Federspiel called this the biggest challenge of the project.

The researchers have more obstacles ahead of them. Although a recent paper demonstrated that the lung worked on sheep subjects during a six-hour trial, they will still need to complete month-long animal studies before getting approval to test with humans. Although the lung is small enough to fit into a backpack, it still requires an external oxygen tank that patients would need to wheel with them. With patient freedom and mobility as their focus, Federspiel and his team are working on building a tank-free prototype.