Portable machine to help swine flu victims developed

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A portable version of a life-saving machine that has been used to treat seriously ill swine flu victims is being developed, scientists revealed today

Bioengineers from Strathclyde University are working with doctors in Glasgow to develop a device that could be used to deliver extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment.

The team is now looking for research funding to help take forward the work - which aims to come up with a new system which could be used to deliver ECMO in any intensive care unit.

ECMO treatment involves circulating the patient's blood outside the body and adding oxygen to it artificially.

The machine is used when a person's lungs are functioning very poorly, as the treatment allows the supply of oxygen to the body to be maintained while resting the lungs.

It is thought this highly specialist treatment saves one extra life for every six patients, when compared with conventional treatment for those who are critically ill.

But there is only one centre in the UK where adults can benefit from ECMO.

And when there were no beds in the UK pregnant swine flu victim Sharon Pendleton had to travel to Sweden.

Ms Pendleton, who made a full recovery, needed ECMO because she had an extreme reaction to the H1N1 virus.

And last week it was disclosed that a critically ill swine flu patient from Lanarkshire had to travel to Leicester for the treatment.

The patient is now back being treated at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Professor Terry Gourlay, of the Bioengineering Unit at the University of Strathclyde, 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 is 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."

But he added: "Presently, these systems are very complex and ECMO machines require access to mains supplies and a range of clinical specialists.

"We are developing a new, integrated system that requires fewer specialist staff to operate it and can be portable.

"Our aim is to create a smaller system that can be used in any intensive care unit, making treatment available to a much greater number of people."

Prof Gourlay's team is working closely with cardio-thoracic surgeons in Glasgow.

Dr Mark Danton, consultant cardio-thoracic surgeon at Glasgow's Yorkhill and Golden Jubilee Hospitals, described ECMO as being "invaluable in the treatment of both children and adults with life threatening deterioration of heart or lung function".

He added: "The use of ECMO has saved lives that would have been otherwise unlikely to survive by alternative therapy.

"The Strathclyde group propose 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."

Last week Scotland Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon ordered an expert group to be set up to consider how to establish an ECMO centre in Scotland.

And yesterday new figures revealed the number of people thought to have swine flu in Scotland has almost doubled in the past week.

Estimates suggest almost 13,800 people caught the H1N1 bug last week, compared with about 7,000 the previous week.