Surgeons are beginning to see the benefits of a warm heart in the operating room as well as in their personal lives.

A new system has successfully salvaged at least 15 lifesaving hearts by mimicking the conditions in the body rather than attempting to freeze time, in the manner of old organ transportation.

Developed by a Massachussetts-based company called TransMedics, the $250,000 device is already in use in the United Kingdom and Australia, but is still pending approval for use in the United States. The system works by keeping the heart warm, beating, and fed with blood rich in the nutrients and oxygen it needs to stay healthy.

"Cold is the old thing, and warm is the new thing," said Korkut Uygun, a transplant surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital, to MIT Technology Review. "Warm is the way to go with metabolically active tissue."

(Photo: MIT Technology Review)

Brain-dead donors are the lifeblood of the current organ transplant system in the U.S. These donors are so critical because they essentially offer a pre-death window during which doctors can plan the extraction, shipping and transplantation of their organs before those organs begin to deteriorate. This typically involves cooling down the heart while it's still beating inside the brain-dead body, then removing and shipping it at near-freezing temperatures.

These seemingly extreme measures have been necessary because the heart that has already stopped is a heart that is already damaged. Once the blood stops pumping, the heart quickly becomes oxygen-starved and its muscle cells die in droves.

The problem is, of course, that there aren't nearly enough brain-dead donors to go around. The number of heart transplants in the U.S. has more or less stagnated at about 2,400 a year over the past two decades.

Keeping hearts alive and beating outside of the body is a way for doctors to circumvent this problem. Using the new device, surgeons have a shot at salvaging hearts from non-brain-dead patients.

A handful of small companies, including the Netherlands-based Organ Assist, are working on similar systems for other organs.

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