Perflubron Liquid breathing: Is it time to blow off air?

In second year of undergraduate, we walked into what we thought would be a standard anatomy class. But what we didn’t expect to see were to pairs of lungs open on the bench. One infant size. The other much larger. Much darker. The pearly white of the infants lung contrasted with the polluted adults lung. Turns out that the adult was a life long smoker and that there is no way to clean a smokers lungs. That’s where I got the idea of perflubron liquid breathing.

Imagine a liquid which makes water look like honey. We can inhale it into our lungs. It can give you the superpower you always dreamed of – the ability to breath underwater. Perflubron liquid breathing was popularised in the 1989 science-fiction, The Abyss. At first, we see a white-fluffy mouse kicking and fighting. It’s suffocating. Enveloped in a thick green liquid. Eventually the rising carbon dioxide levels trigger an uncontrollable urge. The mouse had to inhale the green goo yet it isn’t the end of the mouse. 

The crazy thing. Perflubron is real and has current medical applications!

Inhaling a liquid can cause dry drowning hours later. The air sacs of the lung become inflammed. Gas exchange won’t be occuring nearly as well. So the carbon dioxide in the blood slowly begins to rise. This lack of air will lead to asphyxiation.

But the thick green goo our mouse from the Abyss was suspended in was no normal liquid. It was perflubron, a liquid containing large amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Best of all, we can breathe it without damaging our lungs or dry drowning. 

Imagine a world where perflubron is our preferred fluid to breathe. A patient with breathing difficulties comes into the hospital. Instead of being given a breathing tube with higher oxygen concentrations, you are dropped in breathing liquid.

Perflubron Liquid breathing meme

History of Perflubron Liquid breathing

After world war I, soldiers lungs had amassed significant damage from the poison gas attacks. Oxygenated saline solution was supposed to alleviate the soldier’s agony. That kicked off the race to find a breathing fluid. There was an eventual lul in the field until a team of engineers were tasked with saving sailors from a sinking submarine. This was during the 1950s. The cold ware was raging. The US Navy had to bring home the men and save them from decompression sickness.

  • In 1962: Dr. Johannes Klystra at Duke University lead a team that had mice breathing oxygenated saline solution at 160 atm. High pressure was required to dissolve sufficient oxygen, however, it meant carbon dioxide wouldn’t leave the mice. This lead to the mice suffocating.
  • In 1966: American researchers Leland Clark and Frank Gollan developed perfluorocarbon for breathing as part of the Manhattan project. 1 L of this liquid weighed 2 kg, double that of water. It flowed 4 times easier then water and could hold 20 times as much oxygen. Mice were found to be able to breathe this liquid for 20 hours.
  • Between 1969 and 1975: Clark and Gollan’s work on PFC was soon taken up by Klystra, who between conducted liquid breathing experiments on humans. The first human to try liquid breathing was US Navy diver Francis J. Falejcyk. Challenges that arose were in draining his lungs after the experiment, however, he didn’t report this experience to be uncomfortable.
  • In 1989 J.S. Greenspan at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, placed 13 premature infants on liquid ventilators for between 24 and 96 hours. This improved lung function of 11 of them and neonatal liquid ventilation was first pioneered.

Medical implications

If a patient presents with an acute lung injury collapse, we need to re-expand the collapsed air sacks (alveoli). A breathing liquid like perflubron is perfect for this because it is heavier then air. It enters the air sacks, gravity pulls it down slightly, helping to open up and reinflation them.

So what would be happening to our mouse in The Abyss breathing in this goo? It has been 3 minutes. Sure it will be a little bemused, but it will begin to relax. Each breathe will feel cold, we know liquid sucks more heat then air. But the liquid will have a very low viscosity which means it will be easy to breathe. Swimming in a pool of this would make swimming in water feel more like the resistance of honey.

A therapeutic use is to use liquid chilling to cool the body by 0.5 degrees Celsius per minute. This would induce therapeutic hypothermia. When done following following cardiac arrest can slow the onset of brain and other tissue damage. Effectively saving lives. The FDA granted this technique “fast-track” development due to it’s ife saving potential.

The Chemistry of Perflubron

The perflubron molecule is able to dissolve so much oxygen because it contains flourine and bromine which can fond weak bonds to oxygen. Allowing more oxygen to be dissolved in it.

The carbon-fluorine bond and the carbon-bromine bond is very strong. This makes it hard to react with anything, an ideal case for putting in the lungs of living creatures. Since it will be less toxic.

Perflubron has implications in inhaled drug delivery which is key for supporting patients with acute lung injury and cystic fibrosis. Water can’t be dissolved in perflubron, but creating what’s called an emulsion can allow scientists to dissolve therapeutics in it. When patient’s come in with breathing difficulties we can get these therapeutics to their lungs through getting them to breathe

Wider applications of Perflubron Liquid breathing

Additionally, perflubron has the ability to change deep sea diving.

Perflubron Liquid breathing Start-up ideas:

Idea dump:

  1. Widespread commercialisation of liquid breathing in hospitals, currently a widely untapped market with little to no competitors. However, you would want to make sure you get regulatory approval for it.
  2. Perflubron submarine tank, decompression tank or deep sea diving tank. Prevent people from developing the bends and allow them to dive down deeper.
  3. Perflubron Liquid breathing sensory deprivation tank. After the interest in sensory deprivation tanks saw them explode in popularity, you could follow suit with a new and improved version. Help with peoples fear of falling asleep in the tank and drowning with a perflubron liquid one.
  4. A reverse the effects of smoking lung cleanse. What do we mean by this? A smokers lung is often polluted with tar and other petrochemicals. Perhaps with perflubron you can clean their lungs and improve their ability to breathe.
  5. Underwater direct to consumer mermaid liquid breathing experience. Yeah do what you want with this one.

Major drawback:

  • Abundance and cost. Take it from a chemist. Creating this liquid on mass will not be easy or low cost.
  • Public perception. Yeah I was told not to breathe in water. Convincing people to try breathing a liquid is going to be a little difficult.
  • Registration: is it considered a therapeutic? Requiring therapeutic registration would make this a very expensive effort.

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Joshua Mills has a bachelor of Adv Science (medical science and medicinal chemistry) from USYD. He founded in 2019 – an online complimentary education company to support and inspire high school science students. Currently he’s undertaking higher degree research, working in a team on a therapeutic to treat children’s bone cancer. In his spare time, he runs ultra-marathons.

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