One word: coils. That’s all a group of University of Pittsburgh researchers need to improve the quality of life for patients suffering from severe emphysema.

An international study from the Pitt School of Medicine showed that tiny metal coils placed inside the lung could help improve the overall quality of life for patients with severe emphysema. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and were recently presented at the American Thoracic Society International Meeting in San Francisco.

Dr. Frank Sciurba served as the lead author on the study and says the approach offers an effective, minimally invasive alternative for patients who have already exhausted other therapy options and want to avoid surgery.

“With lung reduction surgery, patients can feel a lot better by cutting out the worst affected areas of the lung, but very sick patients don’t want to risk major surgery even though it’s proven to be beneficial,” says Sciurba, who’s the director of the UPMC Pulmonary Function and Exercise Physiology Laboratory, and professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine at Pitt. “We’ve tried to find less invasive approaches through a bronchoscope that can allow the rest of the lung to operate better.”

Coil study lead author Dr. Frank Sciurba.

Coil study lead author Dr. Frank Sciurba.

Heavy tissue damage caused by emphysema can make the lungs over-inflate and limit a patient’s ability to breathe, acting like “worn-out rubber bands,” as Sciurba says. The coil is implanted via bronchoscope into the affected lung, where it can restore function and normal breathing by preventing collapse of the airways. The procedure can be done through the mouth and requires no cutting or stitches.

Researchers conducted the study on 315 worst-case emphysema patients from the U.S. and Europe, ranging in age from late 50s to late 70s. Study participants were randomly assigned to receive either standard care, which included inhaler medications and pulmonary rehabilitation, or standard care plus the coil implant. A one-year follow-up showed that the coil group overall was able to walk significantly farther and breathe better than the control group.

In terms of side effects, Sciurba says some patients experienced collapsed lung and bleeding during and immediately following the procedure. However, by nine months the study found no difference in adverse reactions or death rates between the coil group and the control group

Sciurba hopes to have the findings assessed by the FDA before the end of the year.

Watch the video below to see how the coil works: