EDMONTON – A new device is opening up a world of possibilities when it comes to lung transplants. It’s a portable machine that’s potentially saving countless lives by changing the way lungs are transported.
For the past 30 years, an ice cooler would be used to move a donated set of lungs. Of all the lungs donated every year, though, three out of four are rejected due to damage – often from the ice used during this traditional transportation.
The new ex-vivo lung perfusion device – more commonly known as “lungs in a box” – uses state of the art technology to keep donated lungs warm, and infused with oxygen and nutrients.
“That’s what they’re meant to do. That’s what they’re doing inside the donor they came from. That’s what they’ll be doing inside the patient they’ll go into,” explains Dr. Jayan Nagendran, director of research for cardiac surgery at University Hospital and the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.
The new method not only helps preserves the lungs, but also allows doctors to repair ones that would have otherwise been considered unusable for donation.
Before the ex-vivo box made its Canadian debut in Edmonton this past April, 66 year-old Joyce Werk – who had been waiting on the lung transplant list for three and a half years – was told there was finally a set for her.
“So I came to Edmonton and was all prepped and ready for surgery,” she recalls. “And then of course when they opened the box, the lungs were damaged because they were on the ice too long and they deteriorated.”
Her son joked that she might get lucky and be one of the first patients to benefit from the new box.
“And sure enough, first part of April, I got the phone call.”
The lungs the Alberta senior received were from a donor who died in a car accident. Aside from drying out the fluid-buildup in the lungs, doctors were also able to remove a part of them was was damaged.
It was the first Canadian use of the portable device.
“Also longest resuscitation outside of the body of any lungs in the world,” Nagendran adds.
He says that the current wait time for a lung transplant is over one year. Every year in western Canada, 25 people on the wait list die.
“Even if we use this device twice a month, we would get rid of those 25 deaths on the wait list. And that is revolutionary.”
Doug Hallett is the second person to have benefited from the ex-vivo device nine weeks ago. Before getting the new set of lungs, he says he used to get winded just doing up his running shoes. Now, the 48-year-old can spend 20 minutes on a treadmill, no problem. He realizes other patients have not been as fortunate.
“I personally know people who have passed while…while waiting,” Hallett says, choking up.
“That they can save so many lungs that were otherwise deemed unusable, it’s phenomenal…if more people sign their donor cards to begin with, it would be a big help. But this is the next best thing.”
With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News