British Columbia

Donor lungs better, stronger, faster: New transplant tech extends organ life outside human body

B.C. lung transplant surgeons can now retrieve a donor set of lungs and repair, rebuild, and even recondition them outside the human body.

B.C.'s ex vivo lung perfusion system allows organs to be repaired, reconditioned outside body

Doctors at Vancouver General Hospital performed 50 double lung transplants in 2018. That number is expected to increase to about 60 using the ex vivo machine. (Provincial Health Services Authority)

TV's Oscar Goldman might have claimed the ability to rebuild the human body in the 70s show The Six Million Dollar Man, but 21st century B.C. surgeons can finally lay claim to the technology that allows it.

The Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion Program is centred around a new machine at Vancouver General Hospital that is paving the way for surgeons to provide better, stronger donor lungs with faster access to life-saving transplants.

The lung perfusion system allows lungs to live outside the body for up to 12 hours after retrieval.

A set of lungs that might otherwise be rejected for transplant can be reassessed, even repaired and reconditioned in a bubble-like machine using bloodless oxygenated liquid and a ventilator to force air in and out of the lungs.

 

What it means for patients represents a sea change in both the number of available donors, and the length of the average wait time.

Last year, doctors at VGH performed 50 double lung transplants. Using ex vivo, that number is expected to increase to about 60, according to the B.C. Lung Transplant Program. The hope is to also reduce patient deaths on the transplant wait list.

Thoracic surgeon Leith Dewar puts a bronchoscope into the airway of a set of donated lungs to clear away infected material. This is one of the way in which lungs are reconditioned prior to transplant. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We are constantly striving to save more lives and provide better care through innovation," said provincial executive director Ed Ferre.

"The Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion Program offers hope to all those on the wait-list."

The B.C. Lung Transplant Program at VGH is one of four such programs in Canada and offers life-saving treatment for end-stage lung disease.

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