New medical device keeping transplant hearts alive longer at IU Health

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A new medical device is keeping hearts used in transplants alive longer. The device is called a "Heart-in-a-Box" and it's on clinical trial at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

Since the first heart transplant, getting the heart from one place to another was done by keeping the heart cold.

"This is what you typically see in any TV show on. Everything is packed in a cooler and brought back," said Dr. I-Wen Wang, cardiothoracic surgeon at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

The process limited how far people in need of a new organ could search their match.

"For the heart, typically, we want to keep the time between from when the blood flow stops in the donor to the time we restore the blood flow in the recipient to about four hours," said Dr. Wang. "Those four hours has to include the operating time at the donor's hospital, the transport time or the time to the recipient's hospital, and the time to insert the heart."

During a heart transplant surgery, the heart has a limited amount of time it can be outside of the body and not pumping blood. That crucial time can impact the mortality of the heart recipient. That is where the "Heart-in-a-Box" device comes in. Both the donor's heart and the donor's blood goes into the device, allowing the heart to continue pumping during transportation to the heart recipient.

"This trial is so unique, because the key to transplant surgery really boils down to a very limited amount of time that an organ can be outside of the human body," said Dr. Wang. "This is the first time we can affect the heart and keep it working as it would on any other day, in any other body."

According to Dr. Wang, "Heart-in-a-Box" trials in Europe found the heart could last at least nine hours when transported and placed in the new technology. He added that a team in Wisconsin had found a heart in Alaska and was able to successfully get the heart back to their patient by using the device.

On February 24, Wang was one of the surgeons that performed a heart transplant which made its way to the hospital in the "Heart-in-a-Box." His patient was Steve Gilland.

"We couldn't see the down side, particularly after Dr. Wang and I talked," said Gilland, who needed a new heart after finding out he had a weak heart muscle that was enlarged due to the aortic value. "This would expand the area that we could get a heart."

Due to confidentiality rules in place, Dr. Wang could not reveal where Gilland's heart came from or the distance the heart traveled.

Gilland spent two weeks recovering in the hospital and Thursday marked his one-week check-up.

"The gasping and the day-to-day comfortableness of something not being right is gone," said Gilland about how he feels now.

Dr. Wang added that there is already a similar device being used for transporting lungs. Work is currently underway for delivering livers.

"It affords us the ability to see if this kind of preservation method will allow us to use organs that we previously were not able to use and expand the number of donors that are available to help us take care of the patients that we have," the doctor said.

IU Health is the only healthcare system in Indiana and one of only eight in the nation to participate in the device's trial. Dr. Wang said the "Heart-in-a-Box” device is already being used in Europe and Australia.

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