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UPMC successfully uses organ preservation device in lung transplant

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:03 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Gary Cunningham, 53, of Moundsville, W.Va., accompanied by his wife Nancy, talks to the Tribune-Review about his lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. The lung was transported in an experimental organ-preservation device. The high-tech device, which resembles a small cart on wheels, kept the lungs functioning and “breathing” outside the body with a constant supply of blood and nutrients.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Nancy Cunningham, 50, and Gary Cunningham, 53, of Moundsville, W.Va., hold hands in Gary's hospital room on Wedensday, March 13, 2013, while they talk to the Tribune-Review about Gary's lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. The procedure involved the use of an experimental organ-preservation device that resembles a small cart on wheels and keeps the lungs functioning and “breathing” outside the body with a constant supply of blood and nutrients.

Instead of a cooler, Gary Cunningham's new set of lungs arrived at UPMC Presbyterian in a high-tech box on wheels.

The small, experimental machine kept the donor lungs functioning and “breathing” outside the body with a constant supply of blood and nutrients.

“They were still alive when they put them in me,” said Cunningham, 53, of Moundsville, W.Va., who underwent a double lung transplant May 4. “It was like new hope for me. I really have a chance here.”

UPMC surgeons who oversaw the surgery said on Wednesday that the first successful use of the Organ Care System on the East Coast could open the door to a larger pool of donor organs that are currently in short supply.

Like other donor organs, lungs are typically transported while resting on ice in a cooler with no blood circulation, a process that puts them at risk of deterioration.

The new device, which has been tested several dozen times in Europe, was first tested in the United States in December in Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. A European study published last year in the journal The Lancet showed good lung transplantation outcomes after preservation with the system.

The machine, made by Massachusetts-based TransMedics, allows the lungs to remain at a normal body temperature.

The lungs are provided oxygen and blood and flushed with a special solution of drugs and other substances that protect them and prevent contamination. By the time they are transplanted, up to several hours after being harvested, the organ's condition and quality might be improved, surgeons said.

Dr. Jonathan D'Cunha, who performed Cunningham's eight-hour surgery, said the device could allow surgeons to use organs that otherwise would be discarded.

“You can take a bad organ and improve it, and treat it before it goes into a human,” he said. “It allows us to push the envelope and take more organs and test them.”

D'Cunha said surgeons often pass up organs that are not in the best condition, with infections or trauma, and the new device might someday allow doctors to correct those deficiencies.

“If we prove that it's safe and effective, we can look at repairing and regenerating organs,” he said.

UPMC expects to enroll 10 patients in the clinical trial of the device under the direction of Dr. Christian Bermudez, UPMC's chief of cardiothoracic transplantation. The trial will randomly choose five participants to get the device and five to be treated by traditional means.

UPMC surgeons perform about 100 lung transplants every year, according to United Network for Organ Sharing. A little more than 50 people are on the waiting list.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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