You’ve likely heard the phrase, “30 minutes or your pizza is free.” It was a revolutionary idea for pizza places in the 70s and 80s – their food delivery services could guarantee customer satisfaction by either delivering a steaming hot pizza, or… by giving away cold pizzas for free. The practice incentivized speed and efficiency in delivery, and it became a hallmark of some of the country’s major food chains.
For the last 60 years, organ transport has lived by a similar code – deliver the heart, or the liver, or the kidney as soon as possible. Period. There is no flipside to that coin. No customer satisfaction guarantee. Transport the organs quickly, or they become ineffective. They die.
For as far as medical treatment has come in the last six decades, the progress of organ transports wasn’t exactly keeping pace. They’re still transported using ice-packed coolers. No frills or special techniques. Just ice and an organ. Not much had changed in all this time.
That is, until TransMedics, a company founded in 1998 by heart surgeon Waleed Hassanien, developed something called a living organ transplant, capable of transporting all types of organs safely and efficiently.
Their latest breakthrough is called the OCS™ HEART, a portable perfusion and monitoring system. It’s a device that holds the heart and fills it with nutrients, blood and other vital fluids. The device is equipped with heaters to keep the organ warm. All of the organ’s critical functions are monitored during the transport. Blood pressure and oxygen levels can be adjusted.
It’s like transporting the heart in a surrogate body, and it has the potential to save lives.
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According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2014, nearly 30,000 people received organ transplants around the world.
It’s an encouraging number until you realize that there are more than 100,000 people who are still waiting for a transplant – and someone new gets added to that list every 10 minutes. Eighteen of them die per day waiting on their operations.
Many of those deaths are a result of the organ transport system. Eligible donors are too far away, and the organ won’t survive the long commute to its new host. Or the attempt is made, but the ice-and-cooler method of transport damages the organ irreparably.
Neal Beswick is vice president of business development for TransMedics. In a 2013 interview with CNN, he expressed optimism about TransMedics’s ability to solve these problems. “We’d like to increase lung transplantation by a factor of three,” he said. “And we think that we could double the number of heart transplants without any increase in the number of organ donors.”
All by improving the quality of transport?
“A lot of things become real if the organ can be sustained for a long period of time,” he added.
Breakthroughs like the OCS™ HEART is already saving lives in Europe and Australia. It’s been used more than 200 times with promising results, and it is awaiting FDA approval stateside. It won’t solve the world’s organ shortage, and costs might be a limiting factor, but at the very least, it’s iterating on the one aspect of medicine that hasn’t improved in more than 60 years.