The lives of more than 200 people – including 15 children – have been saved thanks to a groundbreaking way of obtaining donor hearts.
The technique, which involves restarting the organ in a machine for half an hour after it has been put in the donor, has increased the number of people receiving an NHS transplant annually by more than a quarter.
Leading heart surgeon Marius Berman, of the Royal Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, and NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), said last night: ‘Our national pilot has led to a 28 per cent increase in heart transplants in the UK. But it has the potential to have an even bigger impact.”
A mother who now hopes to see her daughters married and a young man who enjoys extreme sports are among those who have benefited.
Usually, hearts are taken from donors who have been declared brain dead while in intensive care.
A new technique, which restarts a heart in a machine half an hour after it’s been put in the donor, has increased the number of people receiving an NHS transplant annually by more than a quarter
Life changer: Extreme sports fan Tom Shing, who had surgery in 2015, said he wouldn’t be alive today without the new technique
These are called ‘brain death donation’ (DBD) or ‘beating heart’ donors.
Each year, around 160 people in Britain – a fifth of them children – benefit from these transplants.
But tragically, the shortage of donor hearts is so great that up to one in five who need a replacement die before they get one.
However, since 2015, a new method called “heart transplant donation after circulatory death” (DCD) has expanded the pool of potential donors to include those who die from a wider range of causes.
Before then, DCD hearts were considered problematic – the fact that it stopped beating in the body could have damaged it.
But the solution, a US-made device called the Organ Care System — more commonly known as the “heart-in-a-box” machine — helps the heart reboot, helping it stay healthy for longer.
With DCD heart removal, the dying patient’s medical treatment ends – but only if everyone agrees that continuing is pointless. The heart usually slows down and stops within minutes.
The team then waits an additional five minutes to confirm beyond doubt that the patient is dead. Only then do surgeons begin.
They take the heart from the donor, drain it of blood, put it in the box and attach leads to it. Then they pump in a mix of the donor’s blood and preservatives.
Mr Berman explained: ‘When the heart senses that current, it slowly starts beating again – all on its own – thanks to a small internal generator called the sinus node.’
Once initiated, doctors spend about an hour assessing it for transplant. If all goes well, they’ll transport it to the hospital for the recipient.
NHSBT and NHS have tested the approach in an 18-month trial in the UK. A newly published medical paper shows that 179 DBD heart transplants were performed during that period – plus 50 DCDs.
Crucially, the British pilot proved that survival rates are just as high with a DCD heart.
Mr Berman added: ‘The UK has become the first country in the world to have a nationwide DCD heart transplant programme. It’s a huge achievement.’
Since 2015, 214 UK adults have received a DCD heart. Fifteen children also benefited from this.
Mum of two Melanie Field, 48, who has a genetic condition that caused her heart to fail in her 20s, couldn’t be happier.
She was on the waiting list for three years. When burglars cut off the electricity to her house, her heart-assist machine temporarily stopped, leaving her on the verge of death. But in the end she had surgery in 2021.
She said, “DCD opened up my opportunities. If I hadn’t had my DCD heart, I probably would have died.”
Tom Shing, 31, had surgery in 2015. The extreme sports enthusiast said, “It changed my life. I was wakeboarding again ten weeks after surgery. Without the program I wouldn’t be here today.’