Coronavirus: Scientists create machine that helps COVID patients breathe through their bums

Bottom ventilator
Scientists in Japan have come up with a potentially life-saving alternative to ventilators. Photo credit: Getty Images

COVID-19 patients desperate for oxygen might soon be getting it via an unlikely orifice - the bum.

Ventilators have been in short supply in places hard-hit by the pandemic. The kind used in hospitals can cost tens of thousands of dollars each, but are essential for keeping severely ill people alive. 

But scientists in Japan have come up with a potentially life-saving alternative - firing oxygen-rich liquid up patients' bums. 

"Artificial respiratory support plays a vital role in the clinical management of respiratory failure due to severe illnesses such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome," said senior study author Takanori Takebe of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

They got the idea from aquatic creatures like sea cucumbers and catfish, which can take in oxygen through their intestines. But before shoving a hose up anyone's rear, they had to find out whether it could even work in mammals.

First up were mice. Mice subjected to an environment with lethally low levels of oxygen without the ability to breathe through their bums died within minutes, but three-quarters of those with a specially designed "intestinal gas ventilation system" made it almost an hour.

But that system wouldn't work on people, because it "requires abrasion of the intestinal muscosa" - the crucial layer that protects the rest of our body from whatever gross stuff we've consumed that shouldn't really be there. So the scientists created a liquid version using perfluorochemicals, which seemed to work on pigs.

"Intestinal liquid ventilation reversed skin pallor and coldness and increased their levels of oxygen, without producing obvious side effects," journal Cell Press said in a statement.

"Taken together, the results show that this strategy is effective in providing oxygen that reaches circulation and alleviates respiratory failure symptoms in two mammalian model systems."

The scientists said they think the liquid system would provide COVID-19 patients with enough oxygen to save their lives. 

"Although the side effects and safety need to be thoroughly evaluated in humans, our approach may offer a new paradigm to support critically ill patients with respiratory failure."