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The authors retrospectively reviewed their experience with extracorporeal life support (ECLS) in 100 adult patients with severe respiratory failure (ARF) to define techniques, characterize its efficacy and utilization, and determine predictors of outcome.Extracorporeal life support maintains gas exchange during ARF, providing diseased lungs an optimal environment in which to heal. Extracorporeal life support has been successful in the treatment of respiratory failure in infants and children. In 1990, the authors instituted a standardized protocol for treatment of severe ARF in adults, which included ECLS when less invasive methods failed.From January 1990 to July 1996, the authors used ECLS for 100 adults with severe acute hypoxemic respiratory failure (n = 94): paO2/FiO2 ratio of 55.7 ± 15.9, transpulmonary shunt (Qs/Qt) of 52 ± 22%, or acute hypercarbic respiratory failure (n = 6): paCO2 84.0 ± 31.5 mmHg, despite and after maximal conventional ventilation. The technique included venovenous percutaneous access, lung "rest," transport on ECLS, minimal anticoagulation, hemofiltration, and optimal systemic oxygen delivery.Overall hospital survival was 54%. The duration of ECLS was 271.9 ± 248.6 hours. Primary diagnoses included pneumonia (49 cases, 53% survived), adult respiratory distress syndrome (45 cases, 51% survived), and airway support (6 cases, 83% survived). Multivariate logistic regression modeling identified the following pre-ECLS variables significant independent predictors of outcome: 1) pre-ECLS days of mechanical ventilation (p = 0.0003), 2) pre-ECLS paO2/FiO2 ratio (p = 0.002), and 3) age (years) (p = 0.005). Modeling of variables during ECLS showed that no mechanical complications were independent predictors of outcome, and the only patient-related complications associated with outcome were the presence of renal failure (p < 0.0001) and significant surgical site bleeding (p = 0.0005).Extracorporeal life support provides life support for ARF in adults, allowing time for injured lungs to recover. In 100 patients selected for high mortality risk despite and after optimal conventional treatment, 54% survived. Extracorporeal life support is extraordinary but reasonable treatment in severe adult respiratory failure. Predictors of survival exist that may be useful for patient prognostication and design of future prospective studies.