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Machine keeps donated livers alive for 24 hours

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In a medical first, a machine can keep donor livers alive outside of the body by tricking it into thinking it was never removed in the first place.

In the U.S. and Europe, around 2,000 deteriorated livers are discarded every year because they’re damaged in transit by the ice packs and solutions that have -- for the past four decades -- been the usual way to preserve them. This machine is likely to more than double the availability of livers for transplant. New Scientist reports.

This new liver perfusion device keeps a donated liver at body temperature, supplying it with blood, sugar, oxygen, and nutrients -- keeping it alive and in perfect condition for at least 24 hours. (Most frozen livers become unusable after 14 hours of cold storage.)

  • The OrganOx system (pictured) – developed by Oxford’s Constantin Coussios and Peter Friend -- replicates the body environment: a pump mimics the heart, an oxygenator mimics the lungs, and tubes supply donated blood.
  • A donor liver can be revived within seconds. Blood and nutrients enter through the hepatic artery and the portal vein, and exit through the inferior vena cava. (Just like in our bodies!)
  • A fourth connection to the bile duct allows the liver's functioning to be monitored. Sensors measure fluid flow and pressure, along with levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and sugar in the blood.
  • The device is fully automated so that non-specialist can use it and load it easily into planes or ambulances.

Since the liver just keeps functioning as normal, the device also lets doctors assess how well it’s working before transplanting it. Here’s a video of a liver being plumbed in.

There are roughly 30,000 patients on waiting lists for liver transplants in the U.S. and Europe. About 20 percent of patients die while waiting.

If a 20-person pilot clinical trial is successful, the device could win approval for use in Europe by next year. Last month, two people received livers kept alive with this device.

A company called OrganOx was set up by the University of Oxford to commercialize it.

[Via New Scientist, Reuters, BBC]

Images: University of Oxford

— By on March 18, 2013, 4:47 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure