Human Livers Have Been Kept Alive Outside the Body for a Whole Week in Medical Breakthrough

Scientists have developed a specialized machine which can keep a human liver alive outside the body for one week.

Current approaches are only capable of keeping the organ alive for a few hours. But with the new technology, researchers have significantly extended this period.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the machine has the potential to increase the number of livers available for transplant, potentially saving the lives of many people suffering from severe liver diseases and cancer.

Intriguingly, the machine could allow for the repair of poor-quality livers that would otherwise be declined for transplantation. When placed in the device for a a few days, these livers may regain full function.

"There is an urgent clinical need for more donor livers due to an increasing gap between available grafts and patients waiting for an organ," Pierre-Alain Clavien, Chairman of the Department of Surgery and Transplantation at the University Hospital Zurich, told Newsweek. "To repair or even to regenerate liver we knew that had to build a machine that can preserve a liver longer than any other machine that is on the market."

The machine mimics several key body functions, including the removal of waste products, the circulation of oxygen and the management of glucose levels. It it is based on "perfusion"—the passage of fluid through the blood stream to an organ or tissue.

"With the complex machine, we try to mimic the human body, so that a liver should not realize that it is outside of the body," Clavien said. "The technology was designed to resemble the human body, which is central for any successful long-term preservation of the liver.

For the Nature study, the approach was tested on ten injured human livers which had been declined for transplantation. After seven days in the perfusion machine, six of the human livers recovered full function.

"The success of this unique perfusion system—developed over a four-year period by a group of surgeons, biologists and engineers—paves the way for many new applications in transplantation and cancer medicine helping patients with no liver grafts available," Clavien said in a statement.

The researchers say that the machine opens up new possibilities for the treatment of damaged livers. For example, medical staff may be able to repair pre-existing injuries, clean fat deposits in the liver or even regenerate parts of the organ.

liver perfusion machine
The perfusion machine in operation. The donor liver is connected in the white container in the upper left. USZ

The development of the machine involved researchers from University Hospital Zurich, ETH Zurich, Wyss Zurich and the University of Zurich.

"The biggest challenge in the initial phase of our project was to find a common language that would allow communication between the clinicians and engineers," Philipp Rudolf von Rohr, co-leader of the study and Professor of Process Engineering at ETH Zurich, said in a statement.

According to the researchers, the next step in the development of the machine will be to use the livers which recovered full function for real transplants.

The liver is a large, reddish-brown organ which is located on the right side of the abdomen just beneath the rib cage.

Composed of two main lobes, the the primary role of the liver is to filter blood coming from the digestive tract, according to WebMD. It also detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs, as well as producing important proteins.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Pierre-Alain Clavien.