London: Scientists have developed a new steam blast technique that could scald the lungs and help one breathe more easily, a feat they say could provide relief to patients with breathing disorders such as emphysema.
Results from international trials showed that the therapy that involves firing of steam into the targeted lung tissue leads to significant improvement in lung function and reduced breathlessness in emphysema patients.
There were also improvements in overall quality of life, said Dr Felix Herth, who led one of the trials at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
"A procedure that shows an 83 per cent improvement when looking at several end points should provide new optimism for patients who are living with emphysema," Dr Herth was quoted as saying by a newspaper.
Healthy lungs contain hundreds of millions of tiny air sacs called alveoli, which help in the absorption of oxygen into the blood as well as removing carbon dioxide.
In people with emphysema, a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), these tiny air sacs become inflamed, and in many cases are damaged and destroyed, triggering coughing and breathlessness.
In more severe cases, surgery is used to remove the worst affected parts, cutting the size of the lungs. But many people with the disease are not generally well enough to undergo such extensive surgery that may need two weeks of hospital stay.
The new therapy, developed by researchers at the Uptake Medical in the US, also reduces the volume of the lungs, but uses steam, rather than surgery, in a procedure that requires just an overnight stay in hospital.
First the lungs are scanned to identify the dysfunctional areas. An endoscope or tube is then inserted into the lungs through the airway.
A small balloon is then fed down this tube and inflated in the lungs to block off the area being treated, so that steam does not flow backwards into healthy parts of the lung.
Then steam is fired through the tube into the targeted lung tissue, scalding the tissue. Each vapour blast lasts between three and ten seconds.
Over the following weeks, scar tissue forms which shrinks the tissue -- in the same way that a scar pulls the skin around a wound tight.
This reduces the volume of the lungs, making breathing easier, the researchers said.
The new treatment has recently been approved for use in the UK and Europe and in the past few weeks has been used to treat patients in Germany.
Commenting on the research, Professor Michael Polkey, consultant physician at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, said: "This latest research avoids the need for surgery, which can mean patients suffer less discomfort and recover more quickly.
"At Royal Brompton we carried out the first UK clinical trial of lung volume reduction surgery which is now a widely-accepted therapy for selected patients and the outcomes are extremely good. We are also planning further studies using non-invasive techniques."
Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, added: "Using steam is a developing area, but there is insufficient evidence about the benefits at the moment. We look forward to seeing more clinical trial results."