Medicine

Most Heart And Lung Donations Never Make It To A Patient, But Science May Have A Fix

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In the efforts to get more people to become organ donors, one sad fact looms large: a large percentage of donated organs must be discarded before they ever reach a patient. Luckily, a new method developed by a team of University of Minnesota researchers may be able to change that.

Related: Bone-Marrow Transplant Recipients Have Two Sets of DNA

Why we're covering this:

  • It's important—this new development could affect the hundreds of thousands of people currently on organ transplant waiting lists, including you or someone you love.
  • It's amazing how many obstacles there are to organ transplantation that we just don't think about.

Nothing Lasts Forever

There are many hurdles on the road to receiving a life-saving organ transplant: a measly half of adults are registered organ donors, the wait list is so long that 22 people die every day while waiting for a donation, and even if an organ is donated, that doesn't mean it'll make it to a patient in need. More than 60 percent of hearts and lungs are discarded before transplantation. That's partially because you can only keep these delicate organs on ice for a maximum of four hours. That period is slightly longer for more hardier organs like livers and intestines (8–12 hours) and kidneys (36 hours), but even still, as many as 18 percent of kidneys are discarded before they can save a life, often because of that short storage window. According to one estimate, if we were able to use just half of the hearts and lungs we currently discard, we could get to the end of the organ donation wait list in as little as two years.

Related: The "Heart In A Box" Device Revolutionizing Transplants

We do have ways of preserving organs in the long term, but they've got some problems. Our best hope for long-term organ preservation is vitrification, a process that cools them to such low temperatures that their liquid essentially becomes glass. The issue, as anyone who's tried to microwave a year-old TV dinner can attest, is in the reheating process. The current "gold standard" for rewarming, according to the researchers, is convection, but that has only worked for very tiny samples. Anything larger than a few millimeters, and you get uneven warming that creates too much mechanical stress, resulting in cells that crack and crystallize. That often causes major damage that leaves potentially life-saving tissues completely unusable.

The Fix

As reported in a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the University of Minnesota used a groundbreaking new technique to successfully rewarm cells and tissues without all that damage. Here's how it works: after harvesting the tissues, they load them in a vial with the standard solution they'd used for regular vitrification plus silica-coated iron oxide nanoparticles—basically, teeny-tiny metal beads coated in glass. Then they lower the temperature to cryogenic levels until the tissues are ready to use. At that point, they expose the sample to noninvasive electromagnetic waves that warm up the metal beads, which in turn warm up the tissue in a speedy, uniform way—we're talking 100–200º C per minute, up to 100 times faster than previous methods. After the researchers brought everything up to an acceptable temperature, the tissues showed no signs of harm and the nanoparticles easily washed away.

Related: Science Is Thiiis Close To Growing Human Hearts In A Lab

Of course, these were just small tissue samples—it'll require more work to successfully do this to entire organs. But researchers are optimistic. According to the press release, "They plan to start with rodent organs (such as rat and rabbit) and then scale up to pig organs and then, hopefully, human organs."

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