Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we have all learned more about the life-support system called ECMO that can rescue patients in the intensive care unit. How does it compare to the support system you are developing?
Rossaint: ECMO systems are large, inpatient devices that are currently used primarily for COVID-19 patients with acute respiratory failure. However, you might consider smaller devices if you are only looking to take over portions of the gas exchange. Patients in this setting often have a condition where the lungs cannot remove enough of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that builds up in the blood. In cases like this where you only need to remove extra CO2, it only takes a smaller device. These types might even be implantable.
This means they do not necessarily have to look like modern cardiac support devices.
Rossaint: No, you could miniaturize them. Of course, we are also exploring ways to achieve this goal. There are a variety of technical options, which is why medical science collaborates with experts in the basic sciences, including engineering sciences, physics, mathematics, and computer science in all subprojects of our program.
When do you expect initial findings of your research?
Rossaint: The program has been funded for six years, and I expect we will create some basic requirements for the system’s structure within this timeframe. That being said, it will then be another ten to twelve years before we will have an implantable device that is suitable for long-term use.
How important are such mechanical replacement systems compared to actual donor organs?
Rossaint: They are very important in my view. We know there is a shortage of donor lungs, and it will stay that way for a long time to come, judging by today's needs. Given how often COPD is a cause of death today, we could significantly reduce the suffering of many patients with late-stage COPD and help maintain their quality of life.
Dialysis has only been around for 50 years and is now a standard treatment all around the world. Artificial heart and mechanical support systems have not achieved this scale until 20 or 30 years ago. I think we will experience a similar trajectory once we have an artificial lung: we will see a widespread use because there will be a widespread demand that is nearly unfathomable.