A heart transplant is one of modern medicine’s greatest achievements: removing a severely damaged or diseased heart from a human body and replacing it with a healthy one provided by a donor. Although unfortunately the demand for healthy, useable donor hearts far exceeds the supply, a couple hundred of these transplants are performed every year around the world, giving a new lease on life to the patients receiving them.
Finding a healthy heart in your region which also matches your tissue and other biological makeup can be a long process, and on top of that, doctors have to consider transportation time for the organ: they only have about four hours from the time the heart is removed before it starts to become less viable. In Australia, researchers are working on a way to get donor hearts where they need to be, faster. Doctors are spending a year testing Swedish technology using sheep hearts to try and double the amount of time they can keep a heart viable for transplant as it travels – they hope that the technology, which is designed to keep oxygen circulating efficiently through the heart during transport, will give them as many as eight hours to get a heart to a waiting patient.
Since the 1960’s, heart transplants have been performed with still-beating hearts from donors who are brain-dead but whose heart and other organs are still functioning, since they are far more likely to survive in their new body. However, recent advancements have allowed one hospital in England to perform Europe’s first non-beating heart transplant: after the patient had passed away, doctors were able to restart the heart, keep it beating long enough to check it’s viability, and then keep it functioning and nourished in a heart-in-a-box machine during transport. The 60-year old recipient is doing very well with his new heart and feels his health improving every day. The procedure is extremely expensive and there are currently only two hospitals in the UK with the technology to perform it when possible, but researchers hope that it will eventually become more standard, and increase the amount of hearts available for transplant by 25%.