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Pitt researcher to test organ-cooling device to protect human livers for transplant

| Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

An organ-cooling device that preserves livers from pigs might protect human livers for transplantation, a discovery that could help save untold lives, a University of Pittsburgh researcher said.

Dr. Paulo Fontes said UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore in Oakland could run the first human trial of the method this year and enlist 10 liver transplant patients to start, pending approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers expect the approach developed at Pitt's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine could sustain some human livers that doctors might not transplant otherwise. Up to 40 percent of donated livers can't be used for transplantation because oxygen deprivation in storage and transit leads to too much tissue damage, said Fontes, a deputy director at the institute.

“That bothers me a lot,” he said, adding that organs from donors with medical problems are often not suitable for transplants. “We're not increasing our output.”

The trend contributes to what can be months-long delays for transplant patients across the country, about 17,000 of whom need new livers, according to the Virginia-based United Network for Organ Sharing. Doctors in the United States complete more than 6,000 liver transplants a year.

Fontes and 14 Pitt colleagues collaborated in a five-year project to keep the organs in better shape for the transplant process and to improve their function in recipients. Through a partnership with the Netherlands-based company Organ Assist, the group refined a machine-perfusion system that sends cooled, oxygen-rich fluid into livers from donor pigs, Pitt reported.

The school said the technology keeps the organs in excellent condition for up to nine hours before transplantation, at least in swine. Findings appear online Thursday in the American Journal of Transplantation, offering fresh hope for shorter transplant wait times and lower patient mortality rates.

The family of a former UPMC patient from Brazil supported the research with a $1 million charitable gift, according to the hospital system.

An FDA spokesman said the agency could not comment on a pending product application, so it wasn't clear Wednesday when the human trial might begin.

Fontes said the results could help researchers strengthen other types of transplants.

“We are very excited for the impact on this and other organs,” he said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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