This device, created by Northside resident Dr. William Federspiel, shows promise in treating COVID-19 patients.

Photo of the Hemolung courtesy of ALung Technologies Inc.

By Emery Malachowski

Eighty-eight percent of COVID-19 patients in the New York City area who were placed on mechanical ventilators died, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Hemolung may have the potential to help. 

Created by Northside resident Dr. William Federspiel* at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, the Hemolung is a device that can work either as an alternative to or in conjunction with mechanical ventilators.

Patients with “stiff lungs,” said Federspiel in an interview with The Northside Chronicle, such as many COVID-19 patients, may be at a higher risk for inflammation and injury from mechanical ventilators, which push air into and out of the lungs with fairly high “driving pressure.” Federspiel explains that the mortality rate with mechanical ventilators was already high before COVID-19, but has jumped to 80% or 90% for COVID-19 patients.

Federspiel, who lives in Historic Deutschtown, explains that aggressive mechanical ventilation is not just to provide oxygen, but to remove carbon dioxide from the body. The Hemolung works by actually removing the carbon dioxide from the bloodstream while remaining largely uninvasive. This “ultra-protective lung ventilation,” as he described it, does not require a medically induced coma, whereas mechanical ventilators usually do, and is less harsh to the lungs. It can be used alongside less invasive or noninvasive forms of oxygen ventilation, or can be used with a mechanical ventilator to remove some of the stress of the more aggressive device.

Many COVID-19 patients may be at a higher risk for inflammation and injury from mechanical ventilators, but the Hemolung could offer a gentler alternative. Photo courtesy of ALung Technologies Inc.

However, while the Hemolung has its Conformité Européenne, or CE Mark, which is a conformity marking of the European Union, and is authorized for use in hospitals in Europe and some other countries, it is not currently mass-produced or even approved by the FDA. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the company that produces Hemolungs, called ALung Technologies Inc., was focused on administering clinical trials in both the U.S. and Europe and was “approximately 50%” of the way towards its FDA approval, according to Alung’s CEO, Peter DeComo, who lives in Cranberry Township. These clinical trials were designed to test both how the Hemolung functioned on its own and in conjunction with a mechanical ventilator. Now, DeComo told The Northside Chronicle, those clinical trials are either paused or moving very slowly.

While the Hemolung is not FDA approved, it has been authorized by the FDA for emergency use, specifically for COVID-19 patients. This does not mean, though, that the Hemolung will immediately become widespread. The authorization does not come with state or federal funding for ALung’s production, and the small company has struggled to deal with the pandemic itself. According to DeComo, they only have the capacity to make approximately 15 of the devices per month. There have been five U.S. hospitals, he said, that have requested the device for COVID-19 patients, and so far, ALung has been able to accommodate these requests.

While both DeComo and Federspiel acknowledge that ALung’s capacity to mass-produce Hemolungs for hospitals across the U.S. is limited, DeComo believes the hospitals that already have Hemolungs will benefit from the devices the most. 

Before COVID-19, ALung distributed almost 80 Hemolung devices to the 34 hospitals and clinics that were participating in their clinical trials. Now that the FDA has authorized their devices for emergency use on COVID-19 patients, these hospitals can now use the Hemolung on COVID-19 patients whom they believe would benefit from the device. 

Federspiel says that approximately 15 COVID-19 patients have been treated so far with the Hemolung device in the U.S., and five in the U.K. Both Federspiel and DeComo point to the use of the Hemolung at the Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center in Florida, where the device was used to save the life of a doctor infected with COVID-19, as an example of its potential.

*Editor’s note 6/11/2020: In the print version of this article, Dr. Federspiel is described as a “Northside doctor.” To clarify, Dr. Federspiel is not a medical doctor; he is a professor with a PhD in chemical engineering.

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