Spark

This drone delivered a kidney. Researchers think it can revolutionize transplantation

Dr. Joseph Scalea and his organ drone laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine successfully completed the first organ delivery by drone in April. He is now working to find more ways of using drones for time-sensitive deliveries.

Frustration with current organ transplant delivery led to innovations from organ drone laboratory

This drone successfully delivered a kidney to a Maryland dialysis patient in April. (University of Maryland School of Medicine)
Listen11:27

Drones could help save time, cut costs and simplify how organ transplants are delivered, according to the surgeon who oversaw the first transplant shipment by drone.

Dr. Joseph R. Scalea oversaw the first transplant shipment by drone. (Submitted)

Dr. Joseph Scalea, director of the organ drone laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the idea came out of his frustrations with the current process for organ delivery. Donor organs are typically delivered by chartered or commercial flights, and delays can affect the organ's vitality.

"It's easier to get a pizza delivered to your house and in [a] more timely fashion than it is to get a life-saving organ," Scalea told Spark host Nora Young.

"For such a sophisticated system that transplantation is, and for all the wonderful things that it can do, it has struck me that no one has really innovated this system of moving organs in more than 60 years."

Scalea and his team of medical experts have designed a custom drone for time-sensitive organ shipment. In April, the drone made a four-kilometre journey to successfully deliver its first organ, a kidney for a dialysis patient in Baltimore. The delivery was completed in just under 10 minutes.

"It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time," Scalea said.

Trina Glispy, 44, who received the kidney, was discharged shortly after the transplant surgery and has not required dialysis since.

"This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about," Glispy said in a news release last month.

Monitoring the organ in flight

It took more than a hundred people to make the delivery happen.

The process began with retrofitting an off-the-shelf drone with technology needed for transporting an organ. Then, the team focused on the unique demands of organ transplantation.

"So instead of using a great big airplane or helicopter to move a 10 to 20 pound box, why don't we just move the box?" Scalea said.

The drone used in the April delivery carried a standard organ shipment container that was outfitted with a specialized monitoring system developed by Scalea.

The monitoring technology, a first of its kind for organ shipment, helped track the drone's progress during the delivery and monitored environmental factors such as temperature, barometric pressure and vibrations.

"This technology will tell you what are the extrinsic forces affecting the organ, and do those contribute to the organ's outcome," Scalea said.

Dr. Joseph Scalea and the team at University of Maryland's organ drone laboratory have equipped the drone with a monitoring system. (University of Maryland School of Medicine)

These factors influence the transplant's cold ischemia time (CIT), a window during which an organ can be chilled and then have blood supply restored during transplantation.

In a recent paper, Scalea argued that the current organ shipment system can add CIT, and may render the organ unfit for transplantation.

"There's a culture in transplantation that people go out and get these organs and then bring them back, flying on small-single engine airplanes at incredibly inconvenient times. And we can change that practice now," he said.

What we're doing is showing people that these things can really be helpful.- Dr. Joseph Scalea

Scalea and his team are now working with other experts in the UAV field to perfect the use of drones for time-sensitive deliveries in an effort to expand the use of this technology beyond transplantation.

He hopes the success of the drone's first delivery will help address any hesitation health-care professionals have about using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in medicine.

"What we're doing is showing people that these things can really be helpful — if it means that I can give a patient another three or four years of life because that organ doesn't have to stay on ice for another 10 or 15 or 20 hours."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.