Extracorporeal Life Support (ECLS) Research Laboratory

The University of Michigan is the world leader in the use of artificial organs to save patients dying from acute heart and lung failure: a procedure known as extracorporeal life support (ECLS). ECLS was developed at Michigan by Dr. Robert Bartlett, and is now used in intensive care units worldwide. Laboratory and clinical life support and artificial organ research at Michigan has been under the direction of Dr. Robert Bartlett since 1980. Many of the devices and technologies used for extracorporeal life support were developed in Dr. Robert Bartlett’s laboratory and brought to clinical trials in the neonatal, pediatric, and adult intensive care units of University Hospital. Beginning with ECLS in newborn infants, life support research at the University now extends to pediatric and adult intensive care, implantable heart and lung replacement, expanding the pool of donor organs, and improved artificial kidneys.

Organ replacement research requires the coordination of many basic and clinical disciplines from bioengineering, chemistry, and cellular biology to pediatrics, medicine, and surgery. Thus, the ECLS laboratory is supported by faculty members from various medical and engineering disciplines at the University of Michigan. They include Drs. Martin Bocks, Jonathan Haft, Ronald Hirschl, William Lynch, Mark Meyerhoff, George Mychaliska, Robert Neumar, Gabe Owens, Kagan Ozer, Joseph Potkay, and Jeffrey Punch. Life support research also requires a dedicated laboratory where artificial organs can be developed and tested before taking them to the hospital. The Department of Surgery has established the Extracorporeal Life Support Research Laboratory to support and coordinate research on organ replacement from concept -to bench -to bedside.

The projects in the life support research laboratory include a totally implantable artificial lung, artificial surfaces that do not clot when contacting blood, use of ECLS to resuscitate organs prior to transplantation, an artificial placenta for very premature infants, a device similar to the artificial kidney for treating overwhelming infection (systemic sepsis), and a system for supporting and repairing human organs in culture. It is this type of bench to bedside “translational” research that has been so successful in the University of Michigan Extracorporeal Life Support research program.

Collaboration with medical industry is essential for critical care and life support research. Prototype devices built and developed in the laboratory cannot reach clinical trials, not to mention wide spread clinical application, without the involvement of biomedical industry. Beginning with the prototype, companies develop the manufacturing, marketing and distribution strategies which have made it possible for extracorporeal life support and hemofiltration, for example, to be utilized in intensive care units worldwide. The Extracorporeal Life Support Research laboratory supplies devices to industry, and is involved in the testing of these prototypes from biomedical companies within industry.

The lab has been supported by NIH funding since 1971. Our current lab funding, from NIH grants and industry sponsored contracts, totals more than $2 million dollars annually.

Since the beginning of our lab research, hundreds of undergraduate, medical, and engineering students have participated in the lab. Residents and fellows who have trained in our lab are in medical research and practice throughout the world, and engineers who have trained in our lab have gone on to start and run their own medical device companies. All have made significant and impactful clinical and research careers in the areas of surgery, anesthesia, and engineering.