Jon Sacker, 33, was suffering from cystic fibrosis and rejecting the transplanted lungs he received two years prior. That's when he decided to travel to UPMC from his hometown in Moore, Oklahoma, as a last resort.
When Jon's carbon dioxide levels spiked, making him too sick for another transplant, his family feared the worst.
“I thought I had brought my husband here to die,” said Jon’s wife, Sallie.
Instead, UPMC doctors turned to a Pittsburgh-made device called the Hemolung® Respiratory Assist System (RAS). ALung Technologies developed the system based on technology pioneered at the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
The Hemolung RAS is a dialysis-like option or supplement to mechanical ventilation. It filters out harmful carbon dioxide and provides healthy oxygen to the blood.
Jon was the first person in the U.S. to receive the Hemolung RAS. The device gave him a chance to gain enough strength to have a lifesaving double-lung transplant a month later.
“The series of events that led to Jon's transplant and recovery has been amazing,” said Christian Bermudez, MD, chief, UPMC Cardiothoracic Transplantation. “Jon had previously been very active and fit, and we knew we had to do whatever it took to help him.”
Many people waiting for lungs use mechanical devices as a bridge to transplant.
Jon was too sick for the traditional extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO. But UPMC doctors knew about the Hemolung RAS.
The device removes carbon dioxide and delivers oxygen directly to the blood, allowing a patient’s lungs to rest and heal.
“Jon was in very critical condition when he came to Pittsburgh,” said Mario Crespo, MD, pulmonologist, UPMC Lung Transplant Program. “The Hemolung was a lifesaver for him while waiting for his second lung transplant. We are very proud of his good recovery.”
Since the Hemolung RAS didn't have approval for use in the U.S., Jon's care team notified the Food and Drug Administration. They also asked local hospital officials for emergency approval.
“We had seen the Hemolung RAS used in other countries. We wanted to do whatever we could to help this patient,” said Peter M. DeComo, chair and chief executive, ALung Technologies.
Mr. DeComo and another ALung staff member drove all night to Toronto, where the closest Hemolung RAS was available.
“Jon’s story is a tremendous example of the depth of the work we do here every day. Most hospitals across the country couldn’t handle a situation as complex as Jon’s,” said James Luketich, MD, chair, UPMC Cardiothoracic Surgery. “But we can because of our collective experience and an extensive team that includes transplant surgeons, pulmonologists, nurses, and so many more.”
Jon's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.