Thanks to a new $5 million, 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, a small clinical trial of the artificial lung could be just 3 years away.

“A lot of research has [involved studying] the physiology of the heart and then designing a lung device that uses the heart rather than a mechanical pump – that’s what we’ve accomplished in the last five years. Now we need to refine the device into final form,” says Robert Bartlett, MD, U-M professor emeritus of surgery.

Thirty years ago Bartlett’s laboratory developed a temporary artificial lung system, ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation)—better known as a heart-lung machine—which is used in intensive care units throughout the world to treat patients with acute lung failure, but ECMO is not practical as a bridge to lung transplantation.

Currently, there is no mechanical system that can replace lung function well enough and long enough to allow patients months of time while they wait for donor lungs. This device will allow that time. The implantable artificial lung will not only extend the time to find a donor, but will permit conditioning of the patient. Bartlett added that the lab’s priority from this point forward would be developing “a device that satisfies the FDA and can be reproduced commercially so that it can be made exactly the same every time.”

Collaboration on the artificial lung is complex. The U-M team collaborates with the four other laboratories in the world working on implantable lungs;  the Universities of Maryland, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and Osaka Japan.