A breath of fresh air for lung transplants

A new technique could help nearly double the precious few hours surgeons have to carry out lung transplants, raising hopes for saving more lives, said a study released recently.

Doctors typically rush to do a transplant within about six hours of the lungs being taken from a donor, with time being of the essence because the tissue starts to break down.

But the new method, ex-vivo lung perfusion (EVLP), can help keep lungs outside the body for over 12 hours without significantly harming their recipient's chances of survival.

The extra time means more transplants can be performed.

Organs, which were previously too far away, could now reach recipients in time, said the study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal.

Getting the organs to recipients is the difference between life and death for people on wait lists.

They number about 1,700 in the United States and Canada.

The process starts with the lungs being taken from a donor and put on ice immediately. After being moved to the hospital, the organs undergo EVLP.

This consists of warming the lungs and continuously pumping a liquid of oxygen, nutrients and proteins through them, at which point the "paradigm shifts from slowing death to preserving life", the study says.

If the lungs are simply cooled, standard practice calls for the transplant to happen within six to eight hours of being outside the donor's body.

But with EVLP, which takes at least four hours, the deadline can be pushed to over 12 hours.

"At a time when there is a critical shortage of lungs available... combining cold preservation and EVLP will hopefully make a lot more donor lungs available for successful transplantation", wrote lead author Marcelo Cypel, a surgeon at Toronto General Hospital.

The study focused on 906 adults who got lung transplants at Toronto General from 2006 to 2015. 

It found people who got organs given EVLP and kept outside the body for more than 12 hours spent a similar amount of time in the hospital as those who did not.

Both groups of patients had similar levels of life-threatening complications and survival rates one year after surgery.