New Device Pumps Life Into 'Dead' Hearts

It could raise the number available for transplant by a third
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 6, 2015 7:28 AM CDT
File photo of a heart transplant operation at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.   (AP Photo/Jamie-Andrea Yanak)

(Newser) – The number of hearts available to thousands of Americans requiring a transplant every year could increase by up to 30% if a new piece of medical technology developed in Massachusetts is approved for use in the US, the MIT Technology Review reports. TransMedics' Organ Care System—known as "heart in a box"—is a sterile chamber with oxygen, blood, and nutrient supplies that keeps a heart pumping outside the body until it's ready for transplant. Donor hearts typically come from patients who are brain dead but whose circulatory systems are still functioning, explains the Review. The problem has always been the shortage of brain-dead patients. The OCS changes that, allowing surgeons to remove hearts from the recently deceased and "reanimate" them for transplant—thus opening up a much larger pool of potential donors, notes Popular Mechanics.

In fact, doctors say this could increase the number of donated hearts by 15% to 30%. "Cold is the old thing, and warm is the new thing," says a transplant surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, referring to the standard practice of cooling a heart once it's taken from a brain-dead donor. The OCS has already been used for 15 successful transplants in Australia and the UK, including this 26-year-old's in Britain, as highlighted in the Huffington Post. The device remains under "critical investigation" in the US, says the company. A post at Smithsonian points to two drawbacks: The devices are expensive for now at $250,000 apiece, and they'll likely raise ethical questions about when patients should be declared dead. A medical ethicist tell the Review it's all the more important for patients and families to have their plans spelled out in advance. (Next up: Head transplants?)

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