Contemporary approaches in the use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation to support patients waiting for lung transplantation

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The introduction of the lung allocation score in 2005 prioritized patients with decreased transplant-free survival as the recipients of donor organs and effectively increased the number of critically-ill patients with end-stage lung disease waiting for transplantation. This change presented transplant programs with the challenge of how to both extend the lives of critically-ill, end-stage lung disease patients waiting for donor organs and maintain patient vitality to survival through the rigors of surgery and post-transplant recovery. Motivated by the dismal outcomes of patients maintained on mechanical ventilation pre-transplant, transplant centers increasingly deploy extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) as a means of supporting patients with advanced disease as a bridge to successful lung transplantation. ECMO is an extracorporeal gas exchange device providing delivery of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide from blood passed through the circuit. The specific cannulation strategy determines whether ECMO provides primarily respiratory or circulatory support. The cannulation approach is tailored to the specific physiological manifestations of the pre-lung transplant candidate's disease process. For patients with profound hypoxic respiratory failure, a cannulation strategy that captures a large fraction of the venous return is required to maintain adequate support whereas lower circuit flows are sufficient for patients with predominantly hypercapnic respiratory failure. Improving outcomes and increasing experience with ECMO is motivating transplant centers to initiate support before patients require mechanical ventilation. Awake cannulation is increasingly common and is used to avoid the complications associated with intubation in advanced lung failure. Determining criteria for initiation of support and identifying the optimal approach to support patients with right heart failure in need of circulatory support are avenues of active investigation. Use of ECMO and other forms of extracorporeal support are rapidly becoming a mainstay in the care of the pre-lung transplant patient with advanced disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-41
Number of pages13
JournalAnnals of Cardiothoracic Surgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Extracorporeal life support
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  • Lung transplantation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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