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Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in non-intubated immunocompromised patients

Veno-venous (VV) extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) has become an integral part in the rescue therapy of severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and may be lifesaving in patients with refractory hypoxemia [1]. Ventilator-induced lung injury, ventilator-acquired pneumonia and ventilator-induced diaphragm dysfunction are severe side effects of invasive ventilation and may contribute to the complex pathophysiology of multi-organ failure and death in ARDS [2]. The use of ECMO in patients who are awake and spontaneously breathing (termed awake ECMO) might avoid side effects and complications associated with sedation, intubation and invasive mechanical ventilation [3]. Our group reported the first successful use of awake ECMO in six ARDS patients several years ago [4]. We then concluded that the concept of an awake ECMO strategy as a potential alternative to intubation deserves further evaluation especially in patients with higher mortality following traditional invasive ventilation and ECMO support.

In immunocompromised patients with ARDS who require ECMO support, the 6-month mortality exceeds 70% with a reported in-hospital mortality of 81% in patients following hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) [5]. In immunocompromised patients with Pneumocystis jirovecii-associated pneumonia and severe ARDS we demonstrated earlier that a primarily awake ECMO strategy seems to be a promising strategy [6].

We therefore hypothesized that awake ECMO support to avoid invasive ventilation in selected immunocompromised patients might yield improved outcomes. Here, we present a comprehensive summary of 18 immunocompromised patients who received awake ECMO support for management of ARDS at our institution between 09/2012 and 09/2020.

The patient characteristics are shown in Table 1. At inclusion, the majority of patients had isolated lung failure indicated by rather low rates of low-dose vasopressor support (28%) and renal replacement therapy (6%) as well as physiological serum lactate concentrations. Median (Interquartile Range (IQR)) oxygenation indices at ECMO initiation were 72 (65–82) mmHg with normal values for pH and pCO2 despite maximal respiratory support by noninvasive ventilation (NIV). ECMO was initiated after a median of 1 (1–3) days following initial ICU admission and was carried out for 11 (9–18) days.

Table 1 Demographic and clinical characteristics at initiation of awake ECMO support

Eleven patients (61%) required secondary intubation after a median of 4 (2–6) days. The most common cause for secondary intubation was agitation (6/11, 55%) stressing the critical role for delirium preventive strategies in these patients. The majority (4/6) of patients with agitation as primary cause for failing awake ECMO support developed agitation without any prior respiratory or circulatory deterioration. The choice of anxiolytic medication showed a trend toward a more frequent use of benzodiazepines in patients with agitation compared to all other patients (6/6 vs. 4/12), while low-dose morphine was used less frequently (2/6 vs. 7/12).

28-day-, in hospital- and 6-month mortality rates were 44% (8/18), 50% (9/18) and 50%, respectively. In-hospital mortality was 29% (2/7) in solid organ transplantation patients and 50% (3/6) in hemopoietic stem cell transplantation patients. In-hospital mortality was 73% in patients who required secondary intubation and 14% in patients who did not require intubation while on ECMO support (p = 0.023, Hazard Ratio: 0.133 (0.058–0.789)).

An exploratory analysis suggested several factor associated with later failure of an awake ECMO concept (Table 2).

Table 2 Predictors for failure of the awake ECMO concept

Although this study, to the best of our knowledge, represents the largest experience with awake ECMO in ARDS patients, conclusions are still limited by its small sample size and the uncontrolled nature. Despite these limitations, our findings support the notion that an awake ECMO strategy might be a viable treatment option for immunocompromised patients with severe ARDS, especially in those patients without overt multi-organ failure. Further studies are required to determine the possible role of the awake ECMO concept in patients with ARDS.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. SD is supported by the German Research Foundation (DA 1209/4-3) and by the German Lung Centre (DZL). CK and MMH were supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Clinical Trails Research Group (KFO 311) “(Pre)terminal heart and lung failure: Unloading and repair”.

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KS and HS obtained clinical data. KS, HS, CK, OW, MMH and SD analyzed and discussed the data and generated figures and tables. SD, MMH, HS and KS wrote the manuscript; all authors proof-read the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Klaus Stahl.

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Ethical approval was waived due to the retrospective nature of this study. The study was performed in accordance with the ethical standards laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Stahl, K., Schenk, H., Kühn, C. et al. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in non-intubated immunocompromised patients. Crit Care 25, 164 (2021).

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