Across Europe and North America, about 30,000 patients find themselves in need of a new liver every year. Unfortunately, livers are in short supply. A quarter of those patients will die before a suitable replacement can be found.

Even worse, 2,000 donated livers will go to waste every year due to oxygen deprivation or overcooling, and take they’ll 2,000 lives with them.

Now, that may be about to change.

An alternate scene is playing out at King’s College hospital, where a team of doctors is working to transplant a liver. Next to the surgical team and the patient lies a machine, about the size of an espresso machine, churning blood through a liver that rests in a plastic civ.

The most critical part of an organ transplant is harvesting and delivering the organ without damaging it. Organs can be cooled to slow their metabolism, but the cooling itself can irreparably damage the tissue. Transplant medicine spares no expense to make sure an organ moves from donor to receiver as quickly as possible – ideally, in a matter of minutes.

The liver on the machine was removed from its original owner over ten hours ago.

The space-age looking machine sustains the liver by circulating red blood cells through it. At the same time, the liver’s temperature is held constant at 37°C. By recreating the conditions that the liver experiences inside the human body, this new machine can keep a disembodied liver functioning normally for up to 24 hours.

Designed at Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science by Professors Constantin Coussios and Peter Friend, who assure us that those are their real names, the new machine could mark a sea change in the way that transplant medicine works.

According to Professor Friend, “'Transplant surgery is a victim of its own success with far more people needing transplants than there are donor organs available. This device has the potential to change that situation radically. By enabling us to transplant many organs that are unusable with current techniques, this technology could bring benefit to a large number of patients awaiting transplants, many of whom currently die whilst still waiting.”

A few days after the surgery, 62-year-old transplant recipient Ian Christie meets his doctors. They report that surgery has gone perfectly.

Mr. Christie responds, “I feel better than I've felt for ten to fifteen years, even allowing for the pain and wound that’s got to heal. I'm getting better and better day by day. I just feel so alive!”

Images Courtesy of Oxford University

 

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