COVID-19 can result in irreversible lung damage requiring lung transplantation: Study

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- What’s being called a first-of-its-kind study in Chicago is revealing some startling information on the lasting effects of COVID-19.

Researchers with Northwestern Medicine said COVID-19 can essentially destroy the fundamental framework of the lungs, rendering them irrecoverable, and lung transplantation is the only option for survival.

A new Northwestern Medicine study published in Science Translational Medicine discovered that COVID-19 causes permanent damage and severe scarring to the lungs, mimicking that observed in patients with pulmonary fibrosis, resulting in the need for a lung transplant.

The study also found lung transplants can be safely be performed on critically ill patients, even those with COVID-19. Following transplant and removal of the damaged lungs, the patients recover at a rapid pace, Northwestern said.

Back in June, Northwestern surgeons performed the first known double-lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient in the United States. To date, eight COVID-19 patients have received double-lung transplants at Northwestern Medicine – the most performed at any health system in the world. The most recent transplant happened on Thanksgiving Day for a critically ill patient who spent 130 days on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a life support machine that does the work of the heart and lungs. It’s the longest known amount of time a patient has spent on ECMO in the world before receiving a transplant.

“With about 5.5 million active COVID-19 infections currently in the U.S. and thousands of new cases daily, the need for lung transplantation will grow,” said Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, and the principal investigator of the study. “By using information from our study, we hope more patients can receive lung transplants and that new treatments will be developed to prevent permanent lung damage from viruses.”

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