Portable oxygenation treatment

The development of a portable breathing support machine at Strathclyde University could soon result in the widespread treatment of patients badly affected by swine flu.


Working alongside cardio-thoracic surgeons in Glasgow, bioengineers at the university are developing a new portable form of Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) for use in intensive care and hospital wards throughout the UK.



The treatment is thought to save one extra life for every six patients compared with conventional treatment, however, it is complex and expensive to use. As a result, it is currently only available to adults at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester and at five centres for children.


Prof Terry Gourlay of the Bioengineering Unit at the Strathclyde University said: ‘ECMO is a complex treatment and can be used when a patient has respiratory distress syndrome – a condition when the lungs are badly damaged and it’s difficult to get enough oxygen into the blood stream. Without oxygen, the organs begin to fail.

‘The treatment takes over the job of the lungs while they recover. Blood is taken from the veins and pumped through a gas exchange system outside the body to add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.

‘Presently, these systems are very complex and ECMO machines require access to mains supplies and a range of clinical specialists. We’re developing a new, integrated system that requires fewer specialist staff to operate it and that is portable. Our aim is to create a smaller system that can be used in any intensive care unit, making treatment available to a greater number of people.’



The team has developed a system that integrates all of the major components of the ECMO treatment in a small, disposable unit that is controlled using data from integrated biosensors. The technology can also be operated independently from the mains water and power supplies allowing it to be deployed in a wider setting.


Dr Mark Danton, consultant paediatric cardiac cardio-thoracic surgeon at Glasgow’s Yorkhill and Golden Jubilee Hospitals, said: ‘In our service ECMO has proved invaluable in the treatment of both children and adults with life-threatening deterioration of heart or lung function. The use of ECMO has saved lives that would have been otherwise unlikely to survive by alternative therapy.


‘The Strathclyde group proposes to optimise the treatment through innovations in design and technology. Potentially, this will deliver the treatment more effectively and with a wider application than is the current standard.’

The researchers are now looking for funding to find other applications for the integrated technology. Prof Gourlay hopes that a similar portable system could be used in the military setting to treat soldiers with blast lung injuries and sustain tissues in severely injured limbs. According to the team, the UK military has expressed an interest in these applications.