During the procurement phase of a transplant, packing the organ into an ice chest is still standard procedure. However, iced organs are cut off from oxygen and nutrients and they may end up discarded because they are not viable for transplantation. A transplanted organ that doesn’t work puts the life of a patient at risk. On average, 20 people die each day while waiting for a healthy transplant (UNOS 2016 Transplant Statistics).
Simulating the body
After years of research on liver transplantation, we built a device at our clinic that recreates the environment within the body to preserve a liver prior to its transplantation. A few normothermic machines for transplantation are currently under investigation worldwide but this is the first homegrown device that is undergoing an FDA-approved clinical trial.
Last spring, Robert Mellis from the Finger Lakes region of New York was the first person to receive a liver transplant as part of this research. He had reached end-stage liver disease and developed cancer. The clock was ticking. Prior to transplanting the organ to Mellis, we placed it in the machine that acts as a portable intensive care unit — it keeps the organ warm, oxygenated and can dispense nutrients and medication as needed.
The future of transplants
It was remarkable to see the liver become pink, produce bile and function as if it were in the body; it meant the organ was viable for transplantation. We were overwhelmed at how quickly Mellis recovered from the surgery. He was discharged with normal liver function. Mellis said: “I owe my life to you. It was my honor to give back in some small way by volunteering to have my liver transplant assisted with the ex-vivo equipment. I’m a lucky guy.”
Preserving organs with this technology prior to transplantation is a game changer. It offers significant advantages over the standard method of cold storage. While hooked to the device, the organ is maintained in a natural state, its viability is assessed and the organ can be made healthier while awaiting transplant. This technology has the potential to increase the number of organs that can be transplanted.