Health

How Doctors like Dr. Mark Plunkett Say 'Lungs in a Box' Could Change Transplants

| by Dominic Kelly

Doctors have traditionally kept organs on ice while performing lung transplant surgeries, primarily to preserve them during transport between patients. Now, new technology allows doctors to preserve the lungs in a much better, more natural environment.

“Lungs in a Box” is a brand new technology developed by TransMedics that allows lungs to actually breathe in a warm environment while both blood and oxygen are circulated through them between the donor and recipient sites. This portable perfusion system is one of a kind, and as Dr. Mark Plunkett points out, it could wind up leading to all transplants operating with this technology.

“TransMedics envision having all of organ transplantation one day performed using this box technology where you keep organs functioning and 'alive' during transport,” says Dr. Plunkett, a cardiothoracic surgeon who is involved in research and clinical support for the venture. “The implications of this technology are staggering. These might hold the key to longer, more successful lives after lung transplants. There is a lot more to learn, but the demand for this kind of technology isn't going to go away.”

This innovative technology has already proved to be effective, as the transplant team at UCLA Medical Center performed the first-ever successful transplant surgery using TransMedics’ portable lung perfusion system. As Dr. Abbas Ardehali told the UCLA Newsroom back in 2012, the technology is actually much better for the organ than the traditional icing method that’s been used for years.

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“Organs were never meant to be frozen on ice,” Dr. Ardehali said in the 2012 story. “Lungs are very sensitive and can easily be damaged during the donation process. The cold storage method does not allow for reconditioning of the lungs before transplantation, but this promising 'breathing lung' technology enables us to potentially improve the function of the donor lungs before they are placed in the recipient.”

As Al Jazeera points out, the benefits of using the TransMedics technology go far beyond simply being a more effective system for preservation and perfusion than keeping the lungs on ice. Many times, lungs are imperfect and have a number of issues before they are implanted in the recipient, but by using the OCS Lung technology, essential antibiotics, nutrients, and/or vital medications can be flushed through the lung to “recondition” it. Additionally, reports note that the “Lungs in a Box” could help expand the pool of potential donors for patients in need, as it ultimately enables the organs to be transported in a safe environment across longer distances.

Statistically, as time has gone on, people are surviving for longer after lung transplants. A report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine notes that 63% of lung transplant patients between 2000 and 2003 survived for at least three years after their procedure, compared to only 56% between 1988 and 1994. TransMedics’ OCS Lung technology has already increased the chances that patients who undergo the transplant procedure will live longer than has been expected in the past.

“For any surgeon, whatever can give the patient the best chance for a long, healthy life after transplant has to be considered paramount,” says  Dr. Plunkett. "Miniaturization of this technology may one day allow its use in pediatric transplant patients as well." 

TransMedics has earned a reputation as a leader in innovative medical technology, with the OCS Heart already proving to be successful for patients undergoing heart transplants. Additionally, the TransMedics website says that their innovative perfusion system used for both the lungs and heart is currently being developed for the liver.

The “Lungs in a Box” technology has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and as modern medicine continues to become more superior as time goes on, the TransMedics OCS technology is paving the way for further advancement in the surgical field and beyond.