The University of Alabama at Birmingham said on Wednesday that physicians are using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a portable heart/lung bypass machine, as a last-resort therapy for severe cases of influenza.
The therapy was developed for heart bypass surgery, but has been used as a bridge for heart or lung transplantation and a treatment for severe lung diseases.
ECMO functions in place of the lungs in extreme cases of the flu when severe inflammation has caused the lungs to fail. The machine routes the patient's blood into the machine where it is oxygenated, then pumps the blood back into the body.
Patients can remain on the therapy for several weeks until inflammation has decreases and the lungs are able to function on their own.
The treatment has been used on more than a dozen adult patients since the start of flu season.
"These are very sick patients for whom traditional therapy such as a ventilator is simply not sufficient," Enrique Diaz, an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine and head of the UAB ECMO program, said. "By taking on the functions of the lungs and/or the heart, ECMO supports the body's normal function and gives these patients time to recover."
Many patients require rehabilitation when they are removed from the machine.
"ECMO is not a cure, but it is a way to support some of these very critically ill patients who are failing conventional medical therapy, failing mechanical ventilation," Diaz said. "Many patients are being saved through the use of this technology."