New Device Can Reanimate Disembodied Hearts

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Over 2400 heart transplants are performed in U.S. each year, but a new machine that revives hearts that have stopped beating could put that number much higher.

The “Organ Care System” works by securing a heart in a sterile chamber controlled for temperature and humidity conditions similar to that of the human body. The device infuses blood from the original donor with oxygen and nutrients, running it into the heart to keep it alive and healthy. In the first successful series of transplants using the device, surgeons described waiting two minutes after the hearts had stopped beating before removing them from the donors. Within 20 minutes they had them hooked up to the machines where the hearts would start beating again successfully.

This technology allows doctors to preserve donor hearts they would have previously considered useless. When a patient dies from a lack of blood and oxygen flow to their brain, or what's called a "circulatory death,” the heart and the rest of the organs have been starved of oxygen, and muscle cells are beginning to die. It’s for this reason that organ donations could only be accepted from people whose brains had “died” before the rest of their bodies, leaving a healthy heart behind.

The $250,000 system from Transmedics could change all that by reviving hearts that would have otherwise gone to waste and keeping hearts alive outside the human body for longer periods. It has already led to 15 successful heart transplants in Europe and Australia, and the same technology could be applied to saving lungs, livers, and kidneys as well. Clinical trials are still underway in the U.S., but doctors predict the machine will increase the number of heart donations by 15 to 30 percent. That's technology worth celebrating, even if the idea makes you squeamish.

[h/t: MIT Technology Review]