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Heart Transplant ‘Breakthrough' Shows Promise

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Oct. 24, 2014 -- Australian doctors say they've made a breakthrough that could save the lives of many more people in need of a heart transplant.

Surgeons at Sydney's St. Vincent's Hospital say they've discovered how to use hearts that have stopped beating, rather than relying on still-beating hearts from brain-dead donors.

The team says the technique represents a game-changer for organ donation.

The team from St. Vincent's and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute say the key is a preservation solution that's taken 12 years to perfect. This solution reduces the amount of damage to the heart when it stops beating, making it more resilient once it is restarted.

Cardiologist Peter MacDonald, MD, says researchers developed a technique for restarting the heart in a so-called "heart in a box" machine.

"We removed blood from the donor to prime the machine. We then take the heart out, connect it to the machine, warm it up, and when we warm it up, the heart starts to beat," he says.

'An Amazing Thing'

The first patient to undergo surgery was Michelle Gribilas, 57, who had congenital heart failure and was operated on 2 months ago. She said she now feels "like a different person."

The second patient, Jan Damen, 43, also had congenital heart failure. He had surgery about 2 weeks ago. "It's a wild thing to get your head around," he told reporters. "But it's an amazing thing."

A third patient reportedly underwent surgery using the same surgical technique on Wednesday.

The Australian team says the technique could result in a major increase in the pool of hearts available for transplantation.

More Donors Needed

In a statement, Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, says: "This is a significant development that will hopefully increase the number of donor hearts available for transplant in the future."

"It is wonderful to see these people recovering so well from heart transplantation when, without this development, they may still be waiting for a donor heart."

Still, she said, the number of registered donors needs to rise.

SOURCES: Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.British Heart Foundation.The Australian.

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