Dec. 8, 2010 -- An experimental new heart transplant procedure could change the way transplants are performed in the U.S. Instead of stopping a donor heart and putting it on ice before transplanting, doctors can now keep a human heart beating from the moment it's removed from a donor's body all the way until installation in its new recipient.
Since the first heart transplant 42 years ago, the donor organ was always stopped and kept on ice during transport and surgery. Doctors had to thaw it out first, waiting one hour for every hour that the heart was frozen.
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"The normal preservation time, or time that we allow the heart to be outside of the human body, is usually six hours. Maybe the upper limit is close to eight hours," said Dr. Abbas Ardehali, the director of the UCLA Heart and Lung Program and the principal investigator of the study. "With this, it can go on. The upper limit is unknown, maybe up to 24 hours."
The experimental transplantation technique could mean that potential recipients won't be limited to people who happen to live nearby a donor organ.
Procedure a Test Drive for New Heart
In addition, the procedure could allow surgeons to determine right away whether the heart is viable, like a test drive outside of a body. With a frozen heart, surgeons say, it's always a guessing game, until it's too late to put a patient's old heart back.
Californian Andrea Ybarra was waiting a year and a half for a matching heart, so she gladly signed on to be among the first in the experimental study.
Before the surgery, Ybarra would get winded by just walking down the block.
"Now, I'm exercising, doing cardio," she said. "Life is so different now. You just want to go out and enjoy every minute of it."
Beating Heart Recipient on Her Experience
The heart that now beats in Ybarra's chest was kept in motion, beating in a box before it was placed in her body. The organ was donated by a woman who lived in Palm Springs, Calif.
"I thank God and her every day for this," Ybarra said. "One day, we will meet again."
But thanks to this experimental surgery, not anytime soon.