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A "breathing bypass" for lung patients

Sunday, February 03, 2008

There's a new treatment to help emphysema patients catch their breath again. It's what you might call an airway "bypass."

At his doctor's office, Larry Dibble of Walkill, N.Y., struggles to take a deep breath.

Until 3 years ago, Dibble had no trouble doing that.

He remembers when that changed. "Actually, it happened one night, just overnight, I went to sleep, got up to go to work. And I couldn't breathe."

This lifelong smoker discovered he had emphysema.

It forced him to retire early, and give up his active life.

Worst of all, his doctors said there was nothing they could do.

As Dibble says, "If you;ve ever had the breath knocked out of you, it's like that continuously."

Healthy lungs are elastic, which makes breathing effortless.

Dr. John Kucharczuk, of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the process. "We actually suck air in. But when we exhale, all we do is relax, it's a very passive thing. And the reason we exhale the air is because the elastic tissues in the lung are contracting and pushing the air back out."

But emphysema stiffens lung tissue and collapses small airways.

The result, he says, "They can't breathe any more air in. They also have a great difficulty trying to get air out."

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania are studying an airways bypass technique that could help patients' lungs work better.

The doctor uses a bronchoscope - a thin, flexible tube with a camera, to make new holes in the airway.

"What we do to keep that hole open is deploy a small drug-coated stent and the stent actually holds the hole open, and provides a new airway," he says.

Dr. Kucharczuk says, "What we're hoping to do is just really improve the quality of their life, so that they can be much more functional and more active."

The procedure has lifted Larry's hope. He saysn ow, "I'm not going to be 100 per cent, but a lot better than I am now."

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