Researchers at Imperial College London are to trial a device at the Royal Brompton Hospital, in Chelsea, that will aim to reduce the risk to patients on ventilators in intensive care units.
Four in five ICU patients require ventilation to help them breathe but there is a danger of over-inflating the lungs, causing their condition to deteriorate and leading to fatal lung failure.
About a quarter of ventilated patients already have acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) — placing them at higher risk of effectively drowning.
The £2.5 million study, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, will use software that controls the amount of air on a breath-by-breath basis — and which can sound an alert if the patient’s lungs start deteriorating.
Doctors hope the system could help patients who fall victim to flu this winter.
Dr Brijesh Patel, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London and chief investigator of the study, said ARDS typically occurs in patients severely affected by flu, pneumonia, sepsis or serious trauma. This requires them to be placed on a ventilator — which can cause further injury to the lungs.
Dr Patel, who works at the Brompton, said: “Although the ventilator is essential to keeping a patient alive, sometimes the pressure with which it forces air into the lungs is too much, and they overinflate.
“This damages the delicate, already injured, cells in the airspaces, and further increases the amount of fluid and inflammation within the lungs. In some cases this proves too much for a patient’s body to cope with — and sadly can lead to multiple organ failure and death.”
The trial, involving 60 NHS patients, 50 in France and 50 in Austria, will examine the benefits of “black box” technology called the Beacon Caresystem. This attaches to a ventilator and uses an AI computer algorithm to advise doctors how best to set the ventilator pressure for each patient.
Ventilators help patients to breathe by providing air through a tube in the windpipe, via the mouth or throat.
The new technology, made in Denmark, has previously been trialled on ventilated patients without ARDS.
The system can stream data in real-time across the UK — enabling experts at the Brompton, one of five specialist respiratory failure centres in the country, to advise doctors in other hospitals.
Dr Patel said: “Although ARDS is often fatal, up until now scientists understood very little about why it happens and how to treat it . This new study is the first step to creating a clearer picture of ARDS — and how to save more patients who suffer from it.”