Pioneering research in the North East means human hearts which are not used each year because they are deemed unsuitable for transplant could get a second chance to save a life.
Organ shortage is one of the most pressing issues in medicine, with hundreds of people in Britain dying each year while on the transplant waiting list.
Coronary heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the UK and, some hearts are not retrieved from potential donors due to their unsuitability.
Research is now being done at the University of Sunderland and Newcastle University to look at developing tests to get hearts beating again and prove the organs are still viable for use.
Pre-clinical tests to get dead pigs’ hearts beating have been successful and clinical trials are set to begin on human hearts following approval by National Research Ethics service in Newcastle.
Dr Noel Carter, senior lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Sunderland’s Faculty of Applied Sciences, said: “We have demonstrated enough evidence in our results from restarting pigs’ hearts after several hours of being clinically dead, to be able to begin clinical testing on human hearts that are considered too marginal to be used for transplant or as a source of heart valves.
“Heart surgeons have to be 100% positive that this vital organ is going to work before transplantation, which is why a number of them end up not being used.
“Our research wants to take those rejected hearts, get them restarted, carry out echocardiograms and tests in a sterile environment to check activity and show them to be in perfect working order.
“We believe then a proportion could be reconsidered for transplantation.”
The research team has developed equipment and defibrillators to pump warm, oxygenated blood through the hearts and used dialysis to filter out unwanted products from the circuit and therefore restoring the heart’s metabolic activity.
Dr Carter added: “We are devising a series of parameters to test the hearts and ensure that they would be viable if a transplant goes ahead. We believe this could offer new hope for patients and see a greater increase in heart transplants.”
Prof David Talbot, Dr Guy MacGowan, Mr Stephen Clarke and Prof John Dark who work at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital are also working on the study. Prof Talbot said “Heart transplantation rates are dwindling year on year within the UK and abroad.
“This is partly good news as deaths from head injuries through road traffic accidents have fallen but other organ transplants such as the liver and kidney have managed to increase the use of more marginal and older donors.
“This is often not possible for the heart due to heart disease and the effect of certain drugs on the heart toward the end of life. As a result patients with cardiac failure are increasingly using mechanical devices to support their own hearts as a definitive treatment rather than them being a bridge until a heart transplant becomes available.”
Heart transplant is the only option for patients with end-stage heart failure.
The new research work is the project of University of Sunderland PhD student Omar Mownah, a clinical fellow and trainee surgeon, and Susan Stamp, research technician from Newcastle University.
This week is National Transplant Week and NHS Blood and Transplant is backing the research.
Prof James Neuberger, Associate Medical Director at NHS Blood and Transplant said: “We welcome this study and any development that not only increases the quality of organs available for transplant, but also allows those organs currently deemed unsuitable to become of sufficient quality to be transplanted.