Background: Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a life-saving modality used to manage cardiopulmonary failure refractory to conventional medical and surgical therapies. Despite advances in ECMO equipment, bleeding and thrombosis remain significant complications. While the flow rate for ECMO support is well recognized, less is known about the minimum-rate requirements and haemostasis. We investigated the relationship between different ECMO flow rates, and their effect on haemolysis and coagulation.
Methods: Ten ex-vivo ECMO circuits were tested using donated, < 24-h-old human whole blood, with two flow rates: high-flow at 4 L/min (normal adult cardiac output; n = 5) and low-flow at 1.5 L/min (weaning; n = 5). Serial blood samples were taken for analysis of haemolysis, von Willebrand factor (vWF) multimers by immunoblotting, rotational thromboelastometry, platelet aggregometry, flow cytometry and routine coagulation laboratory tests.
Results: Low-flow rates increased haemolysis after 2 h (p = 0.02), 4 h (p = 0.02) and 6 h (p = 0.02) and the loss of high-molecular-weight vWF multimers (p = 0.01), while reducing ristocetin-induced platelet aggregation (p = 0.0002). Additionally, clot formation times were prolonged (p = 0.006), with a corresponding decrease in maximum clot firmness (p = 0.006).
Conclusions: In an ex-vivo model of ECMO, low-flow rate (1.5 L/min) altered haemostatic parameters compared to high-flow (4 L/min). Observed differences in haemolysis, ristocetin-induced platelet aggregation, high-molecular-weight vWF multimers and clot formation time suggest an increased risk of bleeding complications. Since patients are often on ECMO for protracted periods, extended-duration studies are required to characterise long-term ECMO-induced haemostatic changes.
Keywords: Coagulation; Critical illness; Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation; Flow rate; Haemolysis; Platelets.