‘Heart in a box’: U of A research could revolutionize heart transplants

WATCH ABOVE: Amazing new technology is giving heart transplant patients new hope. Su-Ling Goh has more on the new technique developed by U of A researchers, and how it could change the way transplants are done.

EDMONTON – A team at the University of Alberta hopes to save more lives by saving more donated hearts.

Currently, one in every three patients dies while waiting for a heart — a frustrating statistic, especially considering that up to 80 per cent of donated hearts are not usable for transplant because they’re too weak or damaged. The fact that donated hearts are normally stored on ice, which can damage them even more, doesn’t help.

But Dr. Darren Freed of the Mazankowski Institute has designed an ex-vivo system to keep the heart pumping for up to six hours outside of the body, allowing doctors to treat it with gene therapy before transplanting it into a patient.

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The team just received a record $1 million University Hospital research grant allowing them to develop their potentially game-changing technique.

It’s similar to a machine used on donated lungs, but the heart project takes preservation one step further in that it involves gene therapy.

READ MORE: Edmonton doctors bring revolutionary lung transplant technology to Canada

“We have an opportunity to make greater improvements in organ function to even consider an organ that might not have been suitable through a traditional method, protect it, and make it better,” explained transplant surgeon Dr. Jayan Nagendran.

“So this you can say is a significant step forward — or a game changer — in how you consider the period of time for preservation.”

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Previous research has shown a hormone called Adiponectin protects the heart from injury and increases function. Making the heart produce that hormone itself involves delivering new genetic material through a harmless virus, which is washed away before the heart is transplanted into the patient.

Giving the patient a genetically engineered heart means it’s less likely to fail and more resistant to rejection.

“We are in dire need of anything that can modulate how many organs we can use,” said Nagendran. “Even increasing it by one or two is one or two lives.”

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The team will use some of those unusable hearts to practice on, then start transplanting to patients within the next three years.

With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News

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