Heart attacks are one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Some patients can be saved if a heart transplant is available, but these are difficult to come by. However now one group of surgeons says they have broadened the scope of heart transplant surgery forever.

The BBC reports on the new development.

An innovative bunch of heart surgeons say they have figured out how to give a heart transplant using a dead heart. The invention in which the heart is reactivated is being called the heart in a box machine.

Has the procedure already been successfully done?

Yes the surgeons have already performed surgery on a human using the heart in a box machine and it went well. The dead heart was revived into a new patient and that patient is doing well so far.

The BBC explains the process,

“Donor hearts from adults usually come from people who are confirmed as brain dead but with a heart still beating. A team at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney revived and then transplanted hearts that had stopped beating for up to 20 minutes. The first patient who received a heart said she felt a decade younger and was now a ‘different person’.”

Hearts are the only organs that are not utilized after the heart has stopped beating, this is known as donation after circulatory death. The difference is that beating hearts are usually kept on ice for four hours and then transplanted to patients.

How does the heart in a box work?

Basically, the heart is kept warm, the heartbeat is restored and a nourishing fluid helps decrease damage to the heart muscle.

How are patients who have undergone the surgery doing? The first person to have the surgery is fifty-seven years old and was suffering from congenital heart failure. She had the surgery more than two months ago and is doing well.

This heart patient told the BBC how she has been feeling, “Now I'm a different person altogether. I feel like I'm 40 years old - I'm very lucky.” Two more people have gone through this procedure since then and both cases have been successful. Experts in the field such as Professor MacDonald of St. Vincent’s heart transplant unit commended the heart in a box. MacDonald told the BBC, “This breakthrough represents a major inroad to reducing the shortage of donor organs.” The British Heart Foundation called this a significant development.

What results do experts expect to achieve via the heart in a box?

Many think that the heart-in-a-box, (which is being tested at sites around the world), has the potential to save up to 30% more lives by increasing the number of available organs. This innovative procedure has been welcomed around the globe.

Mrs. Talbot, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC: “It is wonderful to see these people recovering so well from heart transplantation when, without this development, they may still be waiting for a donor heart.”

Has anything like this come out before? Other similar procedures for warming and nourishing organs before transplant have been utilized to benefit and further the quality of lung and liver transplants.

Mr. Neuberger, the associate medical director at the United Kingdom's NHS Blood and Transplant service, told the BBC: “Machine perfusion is an opportunity to improve the number and quality of organs available for transplant. We look forward to more work being carried out to determine the impact of this technology on increasing the number of organs that can safely be used for transplant and on improving the quality of those organs.”

While it is technically too early to predict how many lives could be saved through transplantation each year if this technology were to be adopted as standard transplant practice, experts are hopeful that the number would substantially increase.


Gerry Oginski
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