Heartwarming Story: Developing a Better Way to Preserve Organs

TransMedic's Organ Care System keeps organs warm, perfused with oxygenated blood and functioning as they would inside the body while they are transported for transplant instead of putting them on ice as has been the standard for years. TransMedics

There are roughly 120,000 people waiting for organ transplants in the United States. On average, 79 patients across the country get the transplant they need each day, while 22 die waiting because of a shortage of donated organs.

Part of the reason for that shortfall is that not all donated organs can be used. For example, only about a third of 82,053 potential donor hearts were accepted for transplant between 1995 and 2010, a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found last year. One factor is the standard method of transport. Cold storage offers a very short window of time to get the organ from donor to recipient—typically less than four hours for a heart, six for lungs and slightly longer for others.

“Since the dawn of organ transplantation until today, every aspect of organ transplant therapy has seen advancement...except one area: organ preservation for transplant,” says Dr. Waleed Hassanein, president and CEO of TransMedics Inc., a medical device company he founded in 1998. Hassanein, who completed a surgery residency and a cardiac surgery research fellowship, developed the Organ Care System to change that.

Storing an organ on ice causes injury to it over time. “The longer an organ spends in that environment, the worse it becomes,” Hassanein says. The OCS—used thus far for heart, lungs and liver—flips cold, static storage on its head. Instead of chilling an organ and racing against the clock as it begins to decay, the system keeps it warm (roughly at body temperature), perfused with oxygenated blood and functioning as it would inside the body. In other words, a heart beats, lungs expand and contract with air, and a liver creates bile en route to transplant. Theoretically, there is no limit to how long an organ could spend in the OCS.