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Medical First: Doctors Transplant Two Livers Using Device that Keeps Organs 'Alive'

Update Date: Mar 15, 2013 03:42 PM EDT

Organ transplants are a difficult game of risk. Thousands of people sit on the organ donation list, all needing the same organ. Hopeful would-be recipients can be neither too healthy nor too ill in order to be a contender. A huge portion of people on the transplant list die before winning their grim version of the lottery. Then, once the organ becomes available, it needs to be a match. Even if the organ is a match and is available, it remains a possibility that the organ could become damaged and unfit for transplantation in the time lapse between when it is removed from the donor and brought to the recipient.

But a new device, which is the size of a shopping cart, could change that, according to the Telegraph. Called OrganOx, the device keeps livers "alive". The machine completely reverses the current process, which requires organs to kept "on ice". The system, which slows the organ's metabolism, has worked reasonably well for decades. However, it can sometimes damage the organ, leaving it unfit for transplantation in a recipient, and the organ generally cannot be used after 20 hours.

The medical first was performed on two patients at King's College Hospital. One, Ian Christie, said in a statement, "I just feel so alive." Mr. Christie had suffered from hepatitis C and had received the virus from a blood transfusion. Last year, doctors informed him that he had cirrhosis of the liver, giving him just 12 to 18 months to live. He said that, even with the pain from the surgery, he felt better than he had in years. Neither he nor the other patient suffered from any complications from the procedure.

According to Reuters, the device keeps the liver at body temperature. Then it supplies the liver with red blood cells, which keeps the organ working as it would inside the body. As a result, the liver works in the same way that it would if it was still in the body, with blood circulating through its vessels and excreting bile. If the machine is successful, it could double the number of livers that are available for transplant.

That is exciting news, because 13,000 livers are performed annually in Europe and in the United States. However, 30,000 people are on the organ transplant list, and up to a quarter die while waiting.

"If we can introduce technology like this into everyday practice, it could be a real, bona fide game changer for transplantation as we know it," Nigel Heaton, the director of transplant surgery at the hospital, said to Reuters.

The machine could go to market as early as 2014.

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