A damaged human liver was treated and stored in a machine for three days before being successfully transplanted into a patient in a world-first operation, researchers have revealed.
The man involved quickly regained his quality of life with no signs of liver damage or rejection – and remains healthy one year after the operation.
Researchers have said that this development can save lives because the technology can increase the number of livers available for transplantation and allow surgery to be scheduled days in advance.
The man who underwent surgery was a cancer patient on the Swiss transplant waiting list, who was given the choice of using a treated human liver.
After his consent, the organ was transplanted in May 2021 and he was able to leave the hospital a few days later.
He said: “I am very grateful for the life-saving organ. Due to my rapidly progressing tumor, I had little chance of getting a liver off the waiting list within a reasonable period of time.”
This is because there is an increasing gap between the demand for liver transplants and the number of organs available.
And since clinical practice is to store donor livers for a maximum of about 12 hours on ice before transplantation, the number of organs that can be matched with transplant recipients is limited.
‘The future of medicine’
The human liver in this case was preserved at the University Hospital of Zurich using a machine that performs a technique known as ex situ normothermic perfusion.
This is when the organ is supplied with a blood substitute at normal body temperature while outside the body.
The machine copies the human body as accurately as possible to provide ideal conditions for human liver.
Professor Pierre-Alain Clavien and his colleagues in the hospital’s Department of Visceral Surgery and Transplantation prepared the liver in the machine with various drugs, making it suitable for transplantation, even though it was not originally approved for the procedure.
The liver was transplanted into the patient, suffering from several serious conditions, including end-stage liver disease and liver cancer.
Prof Clavien said: “Our therapy shows that by treating the liver in the perfusion machine, it is possible to alleviate the lack of functioning human organs and save lives.”
Mark Tibbitt, professor of macromolecular engineering at ETH Zurich, described it as “the future of medicine”.
“This will allow us to use new results even faster to treat patients,” he added.
The results have been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.