An artificial lung built by researchers at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center has reached efficiencies akin to a human lung, using air for the source of the essential element, instead of pure oxygen as current man-made lungs require.

Use in humans is still years away, but for the 200 million lung disease sufferers worldwide, the device is a major step toward creating an easily portable and implantable artificial lung, said Joe Potkay, a research assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University. Potkay is the lead author of a paper describing the device and research in the journal Lab on a Chip.

The artificial lung is filled with breathable silicone rubber versions of blood vessels that branch down to a diameter less than one-fourth the diameter of human hair.

“Based on current device performance, we estimate that a unit that could be used in humans would be about 6 inches by 6 inches by 4 inches tall, or about the volume of the human lung. In addition, the device could be driven by the heart and would not require a mechanical pump,” Potkay said.

Current artificial lung systems require heavy tanks of oxygen, limiting their portability. Due to their inefficient oxygen exchange, they can be used only on patients at rest, and not while active. And, the lifetime of the system is measured in days.

Potkay, who specializes in micro- and nano-technology, worked with Brian Cmolik, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and researcher at the Advanced Platform Technology Center and the Cardiothoracic Surgery department at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. Michael Magnetta and Abigail Vinson, biomedical engineers and third-year students at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, joined the team and helped develop the prototype during the past two years.

Potkay’s team is now collaborating with researchers from Case Western Reserve’s departments of biomedical engineering and chemical engineering to develop a coating to prevent clogging in the narrow artificial capillaries and on construction techniques needed to build a durable artificial lung large enough to test in rodents.

Within a decade, the group expects to have human-scale artificial lungs in use in clinical trials. They envision patients would tap into the devices while allowing their own diseased lungs to heal, or maybe implant one while awaiting a lung transplant.