The Lung Flute: A Sort of Gross (But Important) Medical Innovation

The Lung Flute is a simple device that uses sound waves to vibrate wads of mucus in your chest cavity until they rip apart and become more easily cough-up-able. (For better or for worse, the ultimate "results" of using the Flute are not shown in the above video.) Handy, certainly. But why, you may be wondering, would such a thing end up on Popular Science's list of The Best Innovations of 2009? Easy. It's because you and your common cold are not the primary audience for a Lung Flute concerto.

The idea for the horn came one night in 1985. Hawkins, an acoustics engineer, and his colleagues began brainstorming how they could use sound to mess with various bodily functions. They joked about what frequency a toilet would need to vibrate at to force an uncontrollable bowel movement and, slightly more seriously, a way to dislodge goo in sick people's lungs. Months later, Hawkins was reminded of that discussion when he learned that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, makes breathing tough for 10 million people, and causes 127,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. "It's the number-four cause of death in the U.S.," he says. "I thought, 'Yeah, I should do something about this.' "

Today, doctors in Japan use the $40 Lung Flute as a tool to collect sputum from patients suspected of carrying tuberculosis, and in Europe and Canada it's used to help test phlegm for lung cancer. Clinical trials in the U.S. have shown that it is at least as effective as current COPD treatments. At press time, Hawkins expected the device to receive FDA approval any day, and says the reusable device could also provide home relief for patients with cystic fibrosis, influenza and asthma.

The Pied Piper of Mucus from Popular Science

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user JeffK, via CC.