New Hope for Transplanted Organs

The creation of an artificial ‘womb’ that pumps warm nutrient-filled oxygenated blood into donor organs may increase the number of transplants.

In a new clinical trial, published recently in the scientific journal “Nature”, a team of biomedical engineers, surgeons and researchers have created a life support machine that preserves donor livers.

People awaiting a liver transplant can die before a suitable donor organ is found as the demand for donated organs far outstrips supply. If a liver is found in time, the quality of the organ is also a major factor for patient survival. However, a new liver ‘life-support’ machine is tipping this balance in favour of those on the waiting list. A machine known as the Metra (metra meaning ‘uterus’ in Ancient Greek), developed by OrganOX, keeps a donated liver at body temperature and fed with oxygenated blood, bolstered with critical nutrients, for up to 48 hours. Better still, medical staff can see how the liver is performing whilst it is attached to the machine, giving surgeons more confidence in the quality of the organ.

Now in the world’s first major clinical trial across transplant centres in the UK and Europe, a team of researchers compared this machine (clinically known as ‘normothermic machine perfusion’) against the traditional storage on ice (known as ‘cold static storage’). 220 people needing a liver transplant were randomly selected to receive a cold-stored donated organ or one that had been preserved using machine perfusion. The results of the randomised clinical trial showed that this machine perfusion technique allowed 20% more transplanted livers and could increase the storage time without compromising patient survival. 

Normally, a donated liver is preserved on ice during its transport to the patient waiting, but this can cause damage to the organ; this damage increases dramatically over time meaning that the donor liver must be transplanted quickly. The hope is that this machine may change the need for speed with transplantation operations and could allow donated livers to be transported over greater distances. 

However, livers aren’t the only organ that can benefit from this kind of technology.  If you watched BBC2’s documentary "Heart Transplant: A Chance to Live", you will have seen a machine that kept a donor heart warm, oxygenated and still beating whilst it was transported from overseas to a patient waiting in Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital. 

Transplant professionals hope that this type of technology becomes common place, allowing donated organs to travel greater distances for longer without fear of damage from cold static storage.  This will also allow more organs to be used and, in the end, means that more lives can be saved. 


Dr Luke Yates

Trustee, Live Life Give Life