Local doctors breathing new life into COPD treatment

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It’s a debilitating disease that literally takes your breath away. Now local doctors are testing a device that may breathe life into the search for a less-invasive treatment for COPD.

Dr. Ravi Kalhan, Northwestern medicine pulmonologist: “Here’s how your lungs looked in the beginning.”

The beginning was rough for 67-year-old Keith Brown.

Keith Brown, emphysema patient: “I went up the stairs because I always try to be active and not use the elevator. And I got to the sixth floor, and I collapsed in an untidy heap. That’s when I knew something was wrong. It was a sad sight.”

Soon after, Keith was diagnosed with emphysema.

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “You can see a lot of black, dark spaces in your lungs. The dark, dark holes are emphysema.”

It’s a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – or COPD. Tissue in the lung breaks down. Patients don’t get enough oxygen and struggle to catch their breath.

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “The fundamental problem in emphysema is the lungs overinflate. Normally the lung is really rubbery and elastic so if you put air in it, it comes out easily. With emphysema … more air goes in, less air comes out, more air goes in, less air comes out. And it’s a balloon that keeps inflating but not deflating.”

Keith Brown: “The sense of inflation is tangible. It’s like having two balloons in your chest.”

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “His lungs are overinflated, they’re domed outward. There’s too much air in here.”

Medications and, in severe cases, surgery help. But there hasn’t been a go-to minimally-invasive treatment.

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “That’s why there’s really interest in this research area of how can we mimic the effects of that surgery without actually doing surgery?”

This nitinol coil may be the answer. Northwestern Medicine ­­­­­pulmonologist Ravi Kalhan is testing it in a clinical trial. Dr. Kalhan inserts the coil using a scope through the mouth and down into the lung. Once deployed, it grabs lung tissue and pulls it inward. The idea is to make over-inflated lungs smaller. Less volume means more efficiency.

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “It’s grabbing onto the tissue and literally pulling it inward, which we think restores elasticity and keeps more of the windpipes open.”

There are now 20 coils in Keith’s lungs.

Keith Brown: “When I heard about this I thought, ‘I just have to do it.’”

Dr. Kalhan: “Left upper lobe is smaller, less air in upper lungs.”

Keith Brown: “As soon as I woke up, I felt so good I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out on my bike and test the little puppies out now!’ To me it’s a small miracle.”

Dr. Ravi Kalhan: “This could be – if it works — a game changer for someone with emphysema that’s severe.

Dr. Kalhan and his team are hoping to learn if the coil not only improves quality of life, but if the device also helps improve endurance — exercise is a key therapy for people with COPD. If you’d like to learn more about the clinical trial, call 1-800-587-2003 or email d-barkema@northwestern.edu.

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