Lloyd Matsumoto awoke from his liver transplant last month to find his surgeon more than pleased with the results. The new organ had begun producing bile almost immediately, a welcome signal that it had quickly started to function well.
That may be partly because of the way Matsumoto’s liver traveled from Tufts Medical Center across Boston to Massachusetts General Hospital. Instead of being packed in ice for the 4½ hours it was outside the abdomens of donor and recipient, the liver was essentially kept alive in a device that maintains its temperature, perfuses it with oxygenated blood and monitors its critical activity.
“They say I’m going to live a normal life span,” said Matsumoto, a 71-year-old biology professor who is now back home in Barrington, R.I. “I’m living proof that it works.”
For all the advances in transplant surgery in the 62 years since doctors first moved a kidney from Ronald Herrick to his identical twin, Richard, the method of transporting organs remains remarkably primitive. A harvested heart, lung, liver or kidney is iced in a plastic cooler, the kind you might take to the beach, then raced to an operating room where a critically ill patient and his surgical team are waiting.
The new approach flips that idea — emphasizing warmth instead of cold and maintaining an organ’s natural processes rather than slowing them down. That may speed an individual heart or liver’s return to service, and it offers the eventual possibility of more: the potential to reduce the chronic shortage of organs for transplant by expanding the pool of usable ones.
Earlier clinical trials established that this technique is safe for transporting donated hearts and lungs. But Matsumoto’s surgeon, James F. Markmann, chief of the division of transplantation at Massachusetts General and head of the liver trial, cautioned that neither idea has been proven for that organ. That’s one of the reasons a study is underway. But Markmann said doctors and patients may be on the cusp of a “new start to this area.”
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