SAN ANTONIO – More than 20 people die every day due to the lack of available organs for transplant.
The American Transplant Foundation reports that statistic stems from the short time crews have to get an organ or limb to the patient in need.
Now, a revolutionary device that's been developed for 30 years in a San Antonio lab could change that, extending the life of a recovered organ to at least 24 hours.
Right now, a heart can only last about four to six hours before it needs to be transplanted.
"Currently, organs are transplanted in an ice chest on ice, and they run like the devil to get from the recovery site to the transplant site. The reason they’re running is because there’s no oxygen in the system, and as soon as you disconnect tissue from the body, even though you’re dropping the temperature, the tissue begins to die," said Leon Bunegin, associate professor of anesthesiology at UT Health San Antonio.
Bunegin has spent three decades in his lab working to eliminate that race against time.
The product of that labor is a device called ULiSSES, and it is expected to save millions of lives.
"We've done successfully heart preservation for 24 hours, kidney preservation for 24 hours and to push that even a little further, we've preserved colon specimens for 48 hours," he said.
He and his team are able to do that by including two main components: a nutrient-rich solution and, most importantly, oxygen.
"The organ looks like it's beating, but it's actually admitting a pulse of fluid, which has oxygen in it and (is) vented into the canister. The solution in the canister comes back up into the top part is reoxygenated, filtered, cleaned and moved again into the organ," Bunegin explained.
"By having a little more time, you can get a better match between the organ and the recipient. By making that match better there will be less rejection," Bunegin said.
The 24-hour time frame will allow organs and limbs to be sent around the world, with no deterioration.
"The whole configuration fits under the airplane seat or in the overhead bin," Bunegin said. "The issue with all the other technology is that it has to be accompanied by a technician. This will not need any assistance whatsoever. Once it's turned on it's on and it goes."
They have multiple sizes of the device. The smallest one fits most organs. The next size up can fit smaller limbs and the largest one is more flexible and can fit a full leg.
The team has just received funding from the Department of Defense to use ULiSSES for battlefield situations.
In August, the research team will take ULiSSES to Kissimee, Florida, where they've been invited to present the system at a large military conference.
As for when the one-of-a-kind device could be used in hospitals, team members said it could be as early as one year.
"We've done quite a lot of small animal work already. We're doing large animal work now with the Institute of Surgical Research out at SAMMC (San Antonio Military Medical Center)," said Tom Debrookes, whose company, Vascular Perfusion Solutions, has been involved with the project for 10 years.
When KSAT got a look at the device, it was being used to pump nutrients and oxygen into a pig's heart.
"The pig is the closest you're probably going to get to a human in the physiological perspective," Debrookes said.
He's now fundraising for the next step, which is distributing the ULiSSES devices to more research institutions.
"With more devices, we can collect data from a wider variety," he said.
They'll then submit the widespread data to the Food and Drug Administration for clearance to begin clinical trials with humans.
"There are many investigators standing in line waiting to join us in the clinical development," Bunegin said with a smile.
He knows it's not surprising, considering this piece of equipment could change the field of medicine as we know it.