Photo: D. Kunkel/Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.; D. Bell/Harvard University; J. Kheir/Children’s Hospital Boston; C. Porter/Chris Porter Illustration
Every day many people find their bodies choked off from life-sustaining oxygen, a potentially deadly problem.
This could be caused by a blockage (like choking on something or a crushed windpipe), or by liquid infiltrating the lungs and blocking the gas exchange that happens inside them.
This is dangerous because that oxygen needs to get into the lungs for the rest of our bodies to survive. Damaged lungs mean all parts of the body are starved for oxygen. A loss of oxygen can cause damage to the brain and other organs, or can even cause a heart attack, any of which could lead to death.
To extend a doctor’s ability to intervene in these situations, one researcher, Dr. John Kheir of Children’s Hospital Boston, designed an innovative, and potentially lifesaving, injectable oxygen foam that could keep organs alive even when a person can’t breathe.
Testing the foam
The foam is made by surrounding tiny oxygen particles with a layer of fatty molecules to form a tiny bubbles using ultrasonic sound waves in the lab. The foam contains about 50 to 90 per cent oxygen. The researchers published their animal trials — performed in rabbits — in the journal Science Translational Medicine on June 27.
The rabbits had blocked windpipes, so they couldn’t get oxygen into their lungs. Without the foam, the rabbits were on the verge of death — their blood was dangerously low in oxygen. But when the researchers administered the foam, without reopening the animals’ windpipes, the rabbit’s blood oxygen levels returned to normal within a few seconds.
Photo: L. Thomson
“This is one of the only drugs that can introduce new oxygen into the blood stream when the lungs aren’t working,” Kheir said. During treatment, this foam would be injected into the person’s veins, getting oxygen into the blood while completely bypassing the lungs.It carries about three to four times as much oxygen as blood does.
Bubbles in the body
The gas bubble membranes allow transfer of oxygen “just as in the lungs: Oxygen gas can cross it and can become solubilized and dissolved in plasma,” Kheir said. The oxygen gas diffuses through the fatty layer around the bubble and enters the bloodstream, where it’s picked up by red blood cells.
The rabbits kept alive by the foam had many fewer incidences of heart attack and other oxygen-deprivation related injuries than the rabbits that hadn’t been injected with the foam.
After the oxygen leaves the lipid bubble, the fatty shells crumple and break apart in the blood vessels. They are picked up and excreted or are reabsorbed. “They end up as circulating lipid globs that are then metabolized by the liver,” Kheir said. The animals showed no evidence that these lipid globs hurt them.
A new helper
Photo: Image concept by J. Kheir; Illustration by E. McIntosh and E. Harris.
This invention is a completely new realm of emergency room medicine. The effect doesn’t last forever though. In this trial they administered the foam for about 15 minutes.The foam doesn’t serve the same purpose as blood replacements, which still need the lungs to function in order to deliver oxygen to the body. The injection would give the doctors time to insert a tough-to-place breathing tube, or put the patient on a heart-lung machine.
If it works in larger animal trials, the researchers will hope to get it in to emergency rooms, where it could be used in combination with currently available life-saving strategies. In those situations, an extra few minutes of oxygen is enough to save a life.
“It’s intended to make them healthier; it’s a short-term substitute which is a very useful thing in my opinion,” Kheir said. “It’s not going to replace anything that’s out there, it’s going to make it easier to rescue patients from severely low oxygen levels.”
Discover the heart breaking story behind the “oxygen foam” innovation >
See a step-by-step process showing how injected gas bubbles deliver oxygen >
See our list of Game Changers: 30 Innovations That Will Change The World >
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