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You've heard a bit about heart transplants and they're no piece of cake, but now there’s a company out there trying to make it a little bit easier.  It's not an off-color SNL skit, but it is a heart in a box.  TransMedics Incorporated has designed a system that allows doctors to transplant still-beating hearts up to 12 hours after they are removed from the donor (compared to the standard 4 to 6 allowed by current technology where they freeze the heart).  Yup.  Scientists have invented a box that keeps the heart beating outside of the body.  Holy crap!

This Massachusetts based company has raised $27.6 million in series B funding.  Their proprietary machine pumps warm, nutrient-rich oxygenated blood through the donor heart until it is ready for transplant.  The heart is kept in a sterile compartment that simulates the conditions within the human body, allowing it to function normally while outside the body.  Along with the life-support systems, the TransMedics machine also has the capabilities for performing the necessary diagnostics that doctors require before the heart is transplanted through the use of a wireless monitor.  Take a look at the video and prepare to… woah.

Doctors are impressed by the machine because, well, it works.  There is no swelling of the organ or damage over the 12 hour residence time in the machine.  The extended timeframe for transplant means that more suitable organs will be able to make it to their patients before time runs out and the organ dies.  This could turn relatively unsuitable donors into prime candidates and reduce the number of patients on waiting lists across the country.

The TransMedics machine has already been cleared for widespread marketing in the European Union, but is still enduring clinical trials here in the United States.  So expect to see this technology in the operating room relatively soon.  Of course, we here at the Hub would never wish you the unfortunate circumstance to have a few pounds of flesh cut out of the center of your chest cavity, but if it just so happens to be the way life deals the cards and they wheel in one of these bad boys, know that you’re in safe hands.  Well, unless your surgeon has narcolepsy.  But that’s a relatively rare disease.  You’ll be fine.

Where can it go from here?  Humanity has certainly not reached the peak of heart transplant technology.  Is 12 hours really enough time to get from donor to prepped patient?  Probably not.  It’s a sure step up from the 4-6 hours offered by current technologies, but it would certainly be a better situation to have a raft of waiting organs rather than a list of waiting patients.  Perhaps one day the technology will exist to keep hearts beating and healthy outside of the body indefinitely, making for the immediate availability of donated organs when they are needed.

We have featured a few stories here on Singularity Hub about growing organs in the laboratory and perhaps this new way of keeping organs alive could be mated to these lab-grown organs.  No, we’re not talking about a dystopian future where every family will have an organ room in their house with spare parts hooked up to these TransMedics machines just in case somebody has an organ failure.  It could be a world where when an organ is needed, it is grown from the patient’s own cells and placed in one of these devices for safe, reliable and healthy transport from lab to patient.  Though such a time is just over the horizon, we must now make due with harvesting our organs from dead people.  At least we have a cool way of keeping those organs alive.  Kali Ma!!!!

Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.