Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation as rescue therapy for severe hypoxemic respiratory failure

J Thorac Dis. 2019 Sep;11(Suppl 14):S1688-S1697. doi: 10.21037/jtd.2019.05.73.


Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) has been used for more than 50 years as salvage therapy for patients with severe cardiopulmonary failure refractory to conventional treatment. ECMO was first used in the 1960s to treat hypoxemic respiratory failure in newborns. On the basis of its success in that population, ECMO began to be used in the early 1970s to treat adult hypoxemic respiratory failure. However, outcomes for adults were, somewhat perplexingly, quite poor. By the 1980s, use of ECMO for severe hypoxemia was rare outside of the pediatric population. ECMO technology, however, continued to evolve and improve. Multiple case reports and small series describing ECMO use as rescue for adults with severe hypoxemia from various lung pathologies have appeared in the literature over the past three decades. Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is often the final common pathway of various pathologies affecting adults and causing hypoxemic respiratory failure. It is prevalent in intensive care units throughout the world and has, since it was first described in 1967, carried a high mortality. No specific therapy for ARDS has been found, and current care is supportive, primarily by mechanical ventilation. Results from recent randomized controlled trials, however, suggest that ECMO may have a place in the treatment of these patients. This article reviews these studies and recommends adding severe ARDS to the list of established indications for ECMO in patients with hypoxemic respiratory failure.

Keywords: Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO); acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS); mechanical ventilation; ventilator-induced lung injury.

Publication types

  • Review