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31 March 2018

Royal Papworth Hospital set to breathe new life into lung disease patients using pea-sized balloon

Patients with chronic clots in their lungs are set to benefit as a ‘life-changing’ procedure that uses tiny balloons to compress blockages becomes available at Cambridge’s Royal Papworth Hospital.

NHS England is funding a pioneering procedure, called Balloon Pulmonary Angioplasty, for patients who suffer from Chronic Thromboembolic Pulmonary Hypertension (CTEPH) - a form of lung disease which sees clots block blood flow in the arteries, raising pressure in the lung which can cause heart failure and premature death.

Patients often cannot work and need to take oxygen just to remain comfortable when resting - but some are not suitable for existing forms of surgery because of the location of the clots.

The new national service - which will be carried out at Royal Papworth Hospital - means that these patients will no longer have to rely on long-term, high-cost drug therapy but will instead benefit from the balloon technique and will be able to, as one patient described, “get their lives back”.

The procedure sees a cardiologist insert a very fine wire into blood vessels in the lungs and guide a tiny balloon into position. The balloon is inflated, to around the size of a pea, for a few seconds to push the blockage aside and restore blood flow to the lung tissue. The balloon is then deflated and removed. This can be repeated several times in different parts of the lung during a single treatment session.

Dr Joanna Pepke-Zaba, Consultant Respiratory Physician at Royal Papworth Hospital, was part of an international delegation which travelled to Japan to research the procedure in 2014. She said: “Because of the success of the pilot study launched at Royal Papworth Hospital three years ago – and because of the financial and innovative risks taken at the hospital - we can now provide BPA in the UK.

“It allows us to get to those hard-to-reach areas of the lung and offer CTEPH patients, the single biggest group of all patients with Pulmonary Hypertension, a much-improved quality of life.”

One patient to benefit from the treatment was Elizabeth Irons, 69, a retired teacher from Nottingham who was rushed to hospital gasping for air after blood clots formed in her lungs.

After being diagnosed with CTEPH, Elizabeth was told the location of the clots were too hard to reach using the only surgical treatment available at the time. However she was given fresh hope when doctors at Royal Papworth Hospital offered her the new treatment as part of the 2016 pilot study.

Now Elizabeth is looking forward to plenty more days playing with her young granddaughter Sienna, 4.

“It’s been an amazing treatment,” she said. “I was awake through the whole thing – I needed to hold my breath for the clinicians at certain points - but I never felt worried because I had such trust in the medical team.

“It’s a life-changing technique; I can do so much more than I could - I’ve been able to go on holidays and fly around the world to see all my sisters. My quality of life has improved enormously. I’m also able to be a lot more active with my toddler granddaughter. She was due to be born just as I fell ill – my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be around to see her grow up.

“It’s wonderful news that NHS England is commissioning BPA at Royal Papworth Hospital so more people can get their lives back.”

James Palmer, Medical Director for specialised commissioning for NHS England, said: “Patients suffering from CTEPH have to cope with really quite severe symptoms, where even small movements can leave people gasping for breath.

“As the NHS approaches its 70th birthday, this surgery we are now funding for patients across the country is a fantastic example of the innovation we will be seeing in the health service over the next 70 years and beyond.”