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Whoa, So Many More People on The Transplant List Will be Able to Get New Lungs Now

Photo credit: iStock/Neustockimages

Photo credit: iStock/Neustockimages

It’s no secret that organs are in high demand by those who need transplants. “The number of patients who are waiting for donation — especially lungs — is increasing and outpacing the supply,” says James Lee, MD, Medical Director of Penn Medicine’s Lung Transplantation Program. This overwhelming need, then, has prompted surgeons and researchers to implement innovative technology to improve the viability of donor lungs, thus increasing the supply. 

One of the biggest reasons there’s such a chasm between those who need lungs and the number of donor lungs available is because approximately 80% of donor lungs are deemed unsuitable for transplant. The donor lungs must meet a variety of criteria determined by the transplant team. These criteria are intended to ensure a successful transplantation. “At a very basic level, the lungs need to be working well,” explains Lee. This shortage of donor lungs results in the death of 20 percent of patients awaiting lung transplant regionally and nationally.

Physicians and researchers recognized that they were not using donor lungs that could potentially be rehabilitated. This led to the development of Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion (EVLP), an innovative therapy applied to donor lungs outside of the body before transplantation that improves organ quality and makes lungs that were previously unsuitable safe for transplant. During the three- to four-hour therapy, lungs are treated with a special solution that contains nutrients, proteins and oxygen. Meanwhile, they’re evaluated closely to gauge improvement and suitability. This allows the Penn Lung Transplant Ex Vivo Lung Perfusion Program to save the lives of more people on the lung transplant waiting list.

As of now, EVLP is only available through a clinical trial in the United States, and only a few centers offer it worldwide. Led by lung transplant surgeon Edward Cantu, MD, Penn Medicine is one of six sites participating in this clinical trial in the United States.

That’s not the only resource in place to aid lung transplantations at Penn Medicine, either. In fact, Penn Lung Rescue uses a mechanical device Veno-Venous Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) to extend the life of those with reversible lung failure, providing a bridge until they undergo a transplant. The therapy allows Penn Lung Rescue to reach patients at another hospitals and begin ECMO prior to transportation back to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. This means physicians can intervene and find a solution for the patient’s illness, extending the window of opportunity. Penn Medicine is the only program in the area that offers this mobile aid.

Even though there have been significant research strides to expand the donor pool, Penn Medicine implores the importance of becoming an organ donor. Until there are enough donated organs for every patient who needs transplant, donors remain the key to the gift of life for those who suffer from a range of life threatening illnesses. To learn more about registering to be an organ donor visit the Penn Transplant Institute website or denote it on your driver license next time you renew it.

Click here for more information about the Penn Medicine Lung Transplantation Program.