The tiny vacuum that cleans infections by sucking healing cells into wounds could help thousands of patients



07:58 GMT, 1 May 2012

The vaccum works by drawing blood into an infected area, which increases the supply of healing cells

The vaccum works by drawing blood into an infected area, which increases the supply of healing cells

A new device that ‘vacuums’ surgical wounds and hard-to-treat sores could help thousands of patients.

An estimated one in 20 patients develops infections following surgery, which occur when bacteria enters the body through a surgical incision.

Many others suffer from chronic skin ulcers as a result of diabetes or other disorders.

The new vacuum machine works by drawing blood into the area, which increases the supply of healing cells.

This not only helps prevent infection and boosts healing, but also stops wounds from re-opening, a common complication after surgery.

The gadget, called a PICO machine, consists of a large disposable dressing connected via a plastic tube to a battery device (the battery is about the size of a mobile phone).

The dressing, which has rubber edges, creates a seal over the wound.

The battery pack is then turned on, creating suction over the area. This has the effect of drawing out fluid and pus from the wound while at the same time encouraging blood supply to the area, stimulating the body to repair itself.

Numerous studies have shown that this technique – which is called negative pressure healing – is an effective treatment.

A randomised control trial of 263 patients published in the Journal of Orthopeadic Trauma found that those receiving negative pressure therapy had about half the infection and wound reopening rates of patients given standard treatment.

However, until now, patients undergoing this treatment generally had to be in hospital because it required a large pump, plus a canister to hold the extracted fluid.

Some patients can carry a smaller, 2lb pump in a backpack, but this isn’t suitable for the elderly or patients on crutches.

More than 2,000 patients a day use the traditional devices, but many more could benefit with the new device, according to developers Smith & Nephew.

This is because the PICO absorbs the fluid via an absorbent gel layer within the dressing.

This can hold between 200 and 300 millilitres of fluid, and can be used for up to a week, depending on the size and severity of the wound.

Breast surgery, hip replacements, stomach surgery and diabetic foot ulcers are among the wounds that are suitable for treatment with the new technology, says Kathy Leak, a sister at Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who has been using the device for nine months.

‘Negative pressure creates the ideal environment for wound healing,’ she says.

‘However, until recently, it was only used in hospitals because the equipment was so heavy.

'This new device means more patients can benefit from the therapy.

‘Treating the patients at home is much cheaper – it costs 400 to 500 a night to have a patient in hospital for the treatment.’ (The device costs the NHS around 120 a week per patient.)

Research shows the device is just as effective as the traditional method.

One of the first patients to benefit is 82-year-old Alma Limb, from Creswell, near Worksop. Doctors feared they were going to have to amputate her left leg after she broke her ankle in November and needed metal plates inserted.

Within three days of using the machine at home, the wound had shrunk by one centimetre.

After using the device for three months, the wound is almost healed.

‘As soon as they put the machine on I could feel it working,’ says Alma.

‘I kept the pump in my knitting bag and the dressing was changed twice a week at the clinic or by the nurse at home.’

Tracey Cooper, president of the Infection Prevention Society, says: ‘Any technology that reduces the length of stay in hospital and risk of infection is welcome.

‘Part of the challenge with wounds is getting patients moving, which maintains blood supply, and this device has the benefit of getting them moving more easily.’