Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a form of prolonged cardiopulmonary bypass used to temporarily sustain cardiac and/or respiratory function in critically ill patients. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation further complicates the management of critically ill patients who already have profound physiologic derangements with consequent altered pharmacokinetics. The purpose of this study is to identify and critically review the published literature describing pharmacokinetics in the presence of ECMO. This review revealed a dearth of data describing pharmacokinetics during ECMO in critically ill adults, with most of the available data originating in neonates. Of concern, the present data indicate substantial variability and a lack of predictability in drug behavior in the presence of ECMO. The most common mechanisms by which ECMO affects pharmacokinetics are sequestration in the circuit, increased volume of distribution, and decreased drug elimination. While lipophilic drugs and highly protein-bound drugs (eg, voriconazole and fentanyl) are significantly sequestered in the circuit, hydrophilic drugs (eg, β-lactam antibiotics, glycopeptides) are significantly affected by hemodilution and other pathophysiologic changes that occur during ECMO. Although the published literature is insufficient to make any meaningful recommendations for adjusting therapy for drug dosing, this review systematically describes the available data enabling clinicians to make conclusions based on available data. Furthermore, this review serves to highlight the need for well-designed and conducted clinical and laboratory-based studies to provide the data from which robust dosing guidance can be developed to improve clinical outcomes in this most unwell cohort of patients.
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