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Doctors pump new life into dead donor heart in US first

Dec 3, 2019

It’s alive!

Doctors at Duke University have managed to re-animate the heart of a deceased donor by using an artificial circulatory mechanism that continues pumping blood through the organ while it’s outside the body.

Once revived, the organ was immediately transplanted into a patient in need of a healthy heart, which was reportedly a success. Experts are calling this a major step toward reducing the current donor organ shortage.

To bring the heart back to life, physicians used a cutting-edge technique called warm perfusion that circulates blood, oxygen and electrolytes through the disembodied heart, prompting it to beat once again. The method was first used at the Royal Papworth Hospital in the UK in 2015.

An attending doctor filmed the remarkable (and graphic) process, and shared the footage on Twitter.

“1ST ADULT DCD HEART IN THE USA!!!! This is the donor pool actively expanding!,” wrote Jacob Niall Schroder, director of the heart transplantation program at Duke University Medical Center.

Heart tissue usually begins to deteriorate even before a patient has been declared dead due to low oxygen levels produced by the slowing heart. By the time death is proclaimed, the heart is already too damaged for reuse.

That’s why, before now, vital organs — meaning those necessary to life — such as the heart had to be taken from a donor who is still alive, but has been declared medically brain dead.

For the time between hosts, the heart is typically kept cold to prevent decay, and remains viable for no more than six hours before it must be placed in a new body.

It may be a first in the US, but Royal Papworth has performed heart transplants this way — what they call donation after cardiac death (DCD) — for 75 patients since their first trial four years ago, according to Schroder. In a tweet, he estimated that this new technique could broaden the donor pool by “as much as 30%.”

He told the Daily Mail, “This is the first time in the US, which is a huge deal because transplant need and volume is so high, but a few centers around the world, including Papworth, have pioneered this effort.”

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