By Sam Marsden
5:16PM GMT 15 Mar 20134
The pioneering UK-built device only preserves the organs but also helps damaged tissue to repair itself, giving surgeons much more time before they have to perform the transplant operation.
At present, donated livers are cooled to 4C (39.2F) to preserve them, but this process does not stop them from deteriorating and they can only be stored for about 12 hours.
The machine developed by scientists at Oxford University warms the organ to body temperature and circulates a combination of blood, oxygen and nutrients through it, allowing it to function just as it would inside a human body.
Researchers are confident they will be able to keep donor organs alive for 24 hours, and pre-clinical tests suggest it may be possible to preserve them for 72 hours or more.
Modified versions of the portable device, which is the size of a supermarket shopping trolley, could also help transplants of other organs, including the pancreas, kidneys and lungs, and could be used to test the toxicity of new medicines.
So far two patients have received livers in pilot trials to test the machine at London’s King’s College Hospital, Europe’s biggest organ transplant centre. Neither has suffered any complications.
Ian Christie, 62, from Torbay, Devon, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C 20 years ago after apparently being infected with the virus via a blood transfusion, was the first person in the world to benefit from the technology.
The father-of-three had been told last May that he had cirrhosis of the liver and could die within 18 months if he did not receive a transplant.
He said: “I feel better than I’ve felt for 10 to 15 years, even allowing for the pain and wound that’s got to heal. I’m getting better and better day by day.”
Wayel Jassem, consultant liver transplant surgeon at King’s College Hospital, who performed the operations, said: “This is very exciting – potentially a major change in practice for liver transplantation.
“I think it’s a breakthrough and it has the potential to take us into a new age.”
Professor Constantin Coussios, of Oxford University’s department of engineering science, who is one of the device’s inventors, said he had been amazed by the successful trials.
He said: “It was astounding to see an initially cold grey liver flushing with colour once hooked up to our machine and performing as it would within the body.
“What was even more amazing was to see the same liver transplanted into a patient who is now walking around.
“Whilst for these two transplants we only needed to keep the livers alive for up to 10 hours, in other experiments we have shown we can preserve a functioning liver and monitor its function outside the body for periods up to 24 hours.”
Professor Nigel Heaton, director of transplant surgery at King’s College Hospital, said the machine could be a “bona fide game changer” for transplantation if it was introduced into everyday practice.
“Buying the surgeon extra time extends the options open to our patients, many of whom would otherwise die waiting for an organ to become available,” he said.
Some 650 liver transplants are performed in the UK each year, but demand for new organs far exceeds the supply.
As well as allowing damaged donor livers to replace damaged tissue with healthy cells, the machine can reveal hidden problems with the organ before it is transplanted into a patient.