Two “warm” liver transplants have been successfully performed within the last month at King’s College Hospital in London, the inventors of the technique announced on Friday. With the old technology, a liver from a recently dead donor must be kept on ice until it can be transplanted into the new recipient — and sometimes the ice damages the organ to the point where it can’t be used.
Engineer Constantin Coussios and surgeon Peter Friend had been working to develop the technology for over 15 years. With their device, a newly donated liver can be hooked up to a machine which can supplies blood carrying oxygen and food to the organ. “The donor liver hardly knows it has left the body,” Friend explained to the BBC.
The new invention is important because there is a severe shortage of livers available for transplant, with regional shortages that can become even more severe. According to USA Today, around 16,000 Americans go on a waiting list each year for a new liver, but only 6,300 get one and 1,400 will die waiting.
Patients who can’t shop around by moving to an area with a shorter list are disadvantaged compared to the wealthy. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs needed a liver transplant in 2009, he skipped the long lines in his home state of California to get the surgery in Tennessee.
But even if you have the money to game the system, there are only so many livers to go around. And a certain percentage of those don’t survive the chilling process.
Coussios said that the conventional method of holding the liver on ice means that transplant surgeons must perform the surgery within less than 12 hours, or the liver becomes too damaged to use. With the new warm liver transplant machine, the liver can be held and monitored for up to 24 hours.
The BBC supplied video of the first warm transplant patient, 62-year-old Ian Christie, who was infected with hepatitis C by a blood transplant. Without the surgery performed by transplant surgeon Wayel Jassem, he was projected to die within 18 months.