London - Transplant patients have been offered new hope after doctors revealed that donor hearts could be kept alive for 24 hours.
At the moment, a donated heart usually only lasts around four hours as it is rushed to the person who needs it.
But scientists have been able to keep pigs’ hearts alive for 24 hours using new techniques.
They pumped preservation fluid through the organ’s blood vessels, delivered pulses of oxygen that mimic a heartbeat and suspended the heart in a solution to stop it collapsing under its own pressure.
The scientists say that if official approvals are granted human hearts preserved using the technique could be transplanted into people in a year to 18 months. The breakthrough, using a device which fits into a small suitcase, could cut waiting lists for transplants.
The average wait for a heart transplant is 1 085 days – almost three years – and many die before a transplant organ is available. Dr Rafael Veraza, from the University of Texas Health at San Antonio, presented the findings on pig hearts at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, Washington.
"The first heart was transported more than 50 years ago by putting it on ice, and decades later it is done much the same way," he said.
"But being able to keep a heart viable for 24 hours means you could transport it almost anywhere in the world, and this could save many lives." While the main reason that hearts are not taken from UK donors is because they are unsuitable, experts say the time between removing an organ and transplanting it is "crucial".
The US researchers tested their system – called ULiSSES – in five pig hearts, finding that they still appeared to be oxygenated with viable cells after 24 hours, with little of the swelling that indicates cell death. The next step is to transplant the hearts back into pigs, to ensure that they function properly, before moving on to human organs.
The scientists plan to test human hearts that are not suitable for organ transplant within three months.