Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute Uses New Technology to Preserve Donor Hearts for Life-Saving Transplants

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Newser) – Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s heart transplant team is using new technology to keep hearts viable while being transported to a waiting heart transplant recipient. The portable technology, called the TransMedics Organ Care System (OCS), extends the time a donated heart can be suitable for transplant, helping to make more donated hearts available to those who need them.

“After the heart is removed from a deceased donor due to cardiac death, the portable system revives the heart and keeps it beating by infusing it with blood from the donor that is supplemented with nutrients and oxygen,” said Dr. Eric Skipper, cardiothoracic surgeon in heart transplantation at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “The system also allows us to carefully assess the heart’s functional quality and viability for transplant before we get to the operating room to perform the transplant.”

According to Skipper, OCS eliminates the time constraints that may require rejection of a donated heart. Previously, the transplant team at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute could only accept donor hearts within a 500-mile radius. It is
because there is a 4-hour limit on organ cold storage, and the travel time between the deceased donor and a patient waiting for a transplant in Charlotte would exceed that. Now, with the use of new technology, the donor pool
has expanded because the heart can be kept viable for up to eight hours and obtained from a distance of up to 1,000 miles. It also allows for the acceptance of higher-risk hearts, including those from older donors and donors who were initially placed on life support before care was withdrawn, called donation after cardiac death.

The first patient to receive a donated heart preserved using the new technology at Atrium Health recently completed his transplant and is currently recovering in the hospital.

“This was a patient who was potentially facing a long wait for an organ transplant,” Skipper said. “But because of being able to use this technology, they were able to get a heart very quickly.” The Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is the only transplant center in the greater Charlotte region currently using this technology and was identified as an ideal location because being a high-quality, high-volume transplant center. The transplant team uses Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air to transport the team to and from the donor site.

The Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is the only transplant center in the greater Charlotte region currently using this technology and was identified as an ideal location because it is a high-quality, high-volume transplant center. The transplant team uses Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air to transport the team to and from the donor site.

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of this device in April 2022 to preserve hearts for donation after cardiac death. The approval followed the results of a multi-center clinical trial comparing the use of the technology with the traditional method of cold storage to preserve donated hearts during transport. The study found that the use of OCS resulted in 90 patients (out of 180 randomized and transplanted patients) receiving organs that had not been used before this technology. These recipients had a one-year survival rate of 93.3% compared to a one-year survival rate of 87.3% among the control group where OCS was not used.

“We have always been limited to accepting organs from immediate brain-dead donors,” said Dr. Joseph Mishkin, an advanced heart failure transplant cardiologist at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “We can now accept organs from donors who have suffered irreversible brain damage but do not meet the official criteria for brain death. In these cases, the family has decided to withdraw care. Donor organs can now be a life-saving gift to others.”

In the U.S., more than 3,300 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and 95 of them are waiting in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation
network.

“We are facing a national shortage of donated organs. I expect this technology to transform the transplant industry by increasing the national donor supply and helping us transplant more patients in need,” Mishkin said.

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