Oxford innovation keeps human liver alive outside body

16568_Liver_device_OrganOx3Technology developed by Oxford University has allowed human livers to be kept ‘alive’ outside the body prior to transplant. Donated human livers connected to a new machine were successfully maintained at body temperature, allowing them to continue to function outside the body.

Two patients have received transplanted livers successfully preserved using the machine at King’s College Hospital in February.

Professor Constantin Coussios of the Department of Engineering, one of the machine’s inventors, explained how the new machine functions: “The organ is perfused with oxygenated red blood cells at normal body temperature, just as it would be inside the body, and can for example be observed making bile, which makes it an extraordinary feat of engineering”.

At present donor livers are kept on ice but may become damaged, meaning that many are rejected by surgeons prior to transplant. Over 2,000 livers are discarded annually due to oxygen deprivation or damage from the cold in Europe and the US at present.

The process could also be used to enable the preservation of livers which would otherwise be discarded as unfit for transplantation. This could potentially double the number of organs available for transplant, as well as prolonging the maximum period of organ preservation to 24 hours.

Professor Peter Friend, Professor of Transplantation and Director of the Oxford Transplant Centre commented: ”Transplant surgery is a victim of its own success with far more people needing transplants than there are donor organs available”.

He added: ”This device has the potential to change that situation radically. By enabling us to transplant many organs that are unusable with current techniques, this technology could bring benefit to a large number of patients awaiting transplants, many of whom currently die whilst still waiting”.

The possible benefits were also stressed by Professor Nigel Heaton, Consultant Liver Transplant Surgeon and Director of Transplant Surgery at King’s College Hospital, who referred to the new technology as a “bona fide game changer” for liver transplants. He added that: ”buying the surgeon extra time extends the options open to our patients”.

The device was produced for the initial clinical trials by OrganOx, a spin-off organisation formed in order to commercialise the University’s research. Research on the new technology began in 1994. 20 operations will have to be successfully performed, however, before the machine can go into production.

The concept of keeping human organs at body temperature is also being tested using lungs and kidneys for transplant.

PHOTO / University of Oxford