To preserve more livers for transplant patients who desperately need them, surgeons should take newly harvested organs out of their ice baths and immerse them instead in a warm, nutrient-rich soup, new research suggests.
In a head-to-head comparison of the two methods, preserving donor livers in conditions that mimic a living body resulted in 20 percent more organs being transplanted into patients, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
“The ability to make good use of every possible donor we have is crucial” to saving lives and reducing the backlog of patients in need of a new liver, said Oxford University bioengineer Constantin Coussios, one of the study’s authors.
The new technique, called “normothermic preservation,” keeps the liver at body temperature and nourishes it with a continuous flow of oxygenated blood and other nutrients.
The researchers tested the two methods in a rigorous, first-of-its-kind clinical trial.
Compared to the “cold storage” approach, the new practice caused less damage to donor livers, slashing the rate at which livers were “discarded” — harvested but never transplanted — in half.
After accounting for unavoidable rates of discard among all livers harvested for transplant, the researchers calculated that the warm-body approach resulted in 20 percent more transplanted organs.
That’s a lifesaving leap forward in a field where the demand for transplantable organs far outstrips supply. Although just under 14,000 patients are waiting for livers in the United States, only about 7,500 liver transplant surgeries were performed in the United States in 2016.
Moreover, while liver failure is on the rise in the United States, the quality and quantity of livers suitable for transplant appears to be declining as obesity, infectious disease and other societal ills erode the organs of prospective donors.