Breathing easier with emphysema

September 7, 2010 7:51:45 AM PDT
Right now, nearly six-million people in the U.S. are having a hard time catching their breath. Severe emphysema strangles the life out of energetic people.

Traditionally, drugs, inhalers, a lung transplant or a massive surgery were the only ways to help. Doctors are testing a new option -- no surgery needed.

Shasta the sheltie is all dolled up and ready to go. For the first time in a decade, Shasta's owner can go, too.

Advanced emphysema had a chokehold on Pam Taylor's life.

"At my worst point, I was ready to lay down and die," she said.

She tried inhalers, meds, therapy and oxygen.

"Your breath is gone, just gone, and the worst part is you never know when or if it's coming back," Taylor said.

Now, doctors say a tiny valve may be the answer to Pam's problem.

"If this works, this is going to revolutionize how we take care of advanced emphysema," D. Kyle Hogarth, MD Assistant Professor of Medicine University of Chicago Medical Center.

Traditionally, for severe emphysema, the options were lung transplant or a massive surgery to cut out the bad parts of the lung. In a new procedure, doctors place umbrella-like bronchial valves in the airway. They re-direct airflow away from the diseased regions of the lung and toward the healthy parts.

"If you could sort of shut those regions down, you would allow the good lungs, the regions of the lung to do more work. It's clearly a lot easier to put a device in the airway than it is to have your chest cut open," Hogarth said.

Six months after her valves were put in, Pam put away her oxygen and easily keeps up with Shasta's pace.

"This helped me so much," Taylor said.

In a European trial, experts found the valves were safe to use and improved quality of life. The bronchial valves are in the final phase of testing in the U.S. People enrolled in the trial who get a "sham" valve are eligible to have the real thing implanted after six months. Doctors say the treatment is best for those who have emphysema in the upper parts of their lungs -- not the lower parts.