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Intelligent Machines

Cargo: Kidney

A futuristic cooler could get organs to those in need.

Organ donation rates are rising in the United States, but they haven’t kept up with demand. More than 50,000 people are awaiting kidney transplants alone, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. One reason for the shortage is the difficulty in transporting donated organs to where they are needed. Because of the primitive way organs like kidneys are currently shipped-in plastic containers filled with ice and suspension fluid-they can remain only viable for about 20 hours.

Enter an experimental container designed by Des Plaines, IL-based Organ Recovery Systems to keep life-giving fluids circulating through donated kidneys even during long-distance trips. The portable device approximates the treatment organs receive at the company’s perfusion centers in Chicago and Baltimore. A kidney “admitted” to one of these centers is attached to a machine that pumps solutions containing various salts, nutrients and medicines through its blood vessels; technicians monitor the fluid flow, pressure, acidity and other factors inside the organ until it’s healthy enough for transplantation. The new transport vessel contains “all the necessary components” for treatment except certain chemical solutions that surgeons must add, says company chief executive officer David Kravitz. Tests on animal organs, he says, show that perfusing a kidney during transportation can keep it viable for up to 48 hours.

Approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected sometime this fall, according to Kravitz, and similar units for the heart, liver and pancreas are in the works. The company’s work has opened up an “opportunity for considerable advances” in organ transplantation, says Stephen Jensik, associate director of renal transplant programs at Rush Presbyterian Saint Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. If Jensik is right and the technology takes hold, more patients than ever before may be receiving a life-saving special delivery.

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