The facts aren’t as horrific as those of other medical ailments, but when it comes to liver transplants, humanity loses more fights than it wins. An estimated 13,000 transplants are performed in Europe and the U.S. annually, while over 30,000 patients are left on the waiting list, with a quarter of those patients dying while they wait. Current methods of liver preservation before surgery consist of keeping the organ on ice, which slows its metabolism and keeps it usable, but they’re rarely still good after 14 hours, and over 2,000 of those livers are discarded due to oxygen deprivation or because they didn’t survive the cold preservation.
While these negative numbers won’t be eradicated completely, they may see a drastic reduction by 2014, thanks to Constantin Coussios and Peter Friend, who have developed a machine that can keep a liver functioning outside of the body for more than 24 hours. It goes so far as to keep oxygenated red blood cells circulating through the liver as it goes about its normal bile production. The medical team predicts this could double the amount of organs ready for transplant. This seems like the kind of news that you’d want to raise a toast for, but drinking alcohol around cirrhosis patients might not read as “polite.”
“It was astounding to see an initially cold, grey liver flushing with color once hooked up to our machine and performing as it would within the body,” said Coussios, an Oxford University professor of biomedical engineering. “What was even more amazing was to see the same liver transplanted into a patient who is now walking around.”
Two transplants were performed after successfully using the new technology at King’s College Hospital in London last month, the result of nearly 20 years of research and development from Coussios and Friend. This is an invention that works in big numbers instead of small ones, so having it work at all is the amazing first step in widespread implementation that will no doubt save thousands of lives in years to come. And it will no doubt inform the preservation of other organs. Like sweet, sweet brains.
Image by University of Oxford/Reuters