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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lungs to continue breathing outside the body

Meg Marquardt
April 19, 11:32 AM

This strange weekend news could also fall under utterly awesome news. A group of scientists in Toronto have discovered a way to allow lungs to continue breathing outside the body, opening a bright new road for lung transplants. What makes it weird is the disturbingly vivid video included with the report that shows the lung machine in action. Watch it. I cannot recommend it enough.

This news comes hot on the heels of Australian researchers finding a technique to end transplant tissue rejection. Taken together, these studies promise a huge leap forward in the field of transplant science.

One of the most difficult obstacles of lung transplants is that so few donated lungs are viable for use. Lungs are very easily damaged, by both illness as well as traumatic accidents, so only about one in 10 can actually be used for transplants. Add to that fact that rejection of lung tissue by the body, and the chances of having a successful transplant become much slimmer.

But a new system developed at Toronto General Hospital hopes to increase the number of lungs available. Using a half-sphere plastic covering to enclose the tissue, lungs are able to be kept slowly breathing for half a day. During that time, they are “maintained at normal body temperature of 37 °C and perfused with a bloodless solution that contains nutrients, proteins, and oxygen. The organs are kept alive in the machine, developed with Vitrolife, for up to 12 hours while surgeons assess function and repair them.” [MIT]

Having that much intimate time with the lungs will hopefully allow the surgeons to make more lungs available for successful transplants. "The system allows you to assess the lungs, to diagnose what's wrong with them, and then repair them," says Shaf Keshavjee, who directs the hospital's Lung Transplant Program. "Therefore, we're transplanting lungs that have a more predictable outcome." [MIT]

And the system has already been tested as it moves through rigorous clinical trials. Since last December, they have transplanted seven pairs of lungs that would have been unusable in the past. All attempts have been successful.

Now go watch the video. While mildly scarring, it is one of the coolest 28 seconds I’ve ever seen.

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