May 10, 2019

Fresh hope for those in need of organ transplant – how drones can make transporting live organs safer and more affordable

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We’ve highlighted the positive uses to which drones can be put, and since then there has been happy news of a case in point: the first instance of a successful organ transplant delivered by drone.

We’ve all heard of the challenges of transporting a live organ from A to B quickly enough, whilst keeping it in a sufficiently healthy state so it can be used in transplant surgery. Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that adding a drone to this already risky ‘mix’ would be asking for trouble, but scientists at the University of Maryland Medical Centre (UMMC) thought otherwise.

All too often the condition of an organ is found on arrival to have been compromised by a lengthy road journey, something which has a very real bearing on life expectancy for the recipient. So UMMC decided to see if something could be done to improve the safety and affordability of organ transport by undertaking pioneering research with drones.

How was this drone feat achieved?

In a first in the already widely expanding use of drones, this was a project which required collaboration not only between surgeons and engineers, but also the Federal Aviation Administration, organ procurement specialists, pilots and nurses, all led by Joseph Scalea, transplant surgeon at UMMC.

Practically, this meant the team had to design and custom-build a drone with the facility to monitor a live organ during flight. Numerous test flights were undertaken to perfect the operation before the experiment with a live organ was attempted.

In addition, the recipient of the organ – a kidney in this case - needed to agree to participate in the venture. No small thing, given that she had by then been waiting several years for a suitable organ.

After the success of the flight and subsequent transplant, the hope now is that this technology will open up many more opportunities for those on organ transplant waiting lists by what in effect will mean a widening of the donor pool.

What are the legal ramifications if things go wrong?

The full legal impact of this new technology remains to be seen. Whilst the hope must surely be that the prognosis and long-term quality of life for patients will be better as a result, fresh legal dilemmas are bound to arise.

Obvious questions spring to mind: who would be liable in the event of a drone going astray or malfunctioning, thus making its precious cargo less viable - the manufacturer of the drone, the operator flying it, or the hospital/provider supplying or receiving the organ who chose to ship it that way?

Whatever the legal ramifications for people who undergo an unsuccessful organ transplant, this is a very exciting development which hopefully will make transporting live organs to those who need them that bit easier, and perhaps saving many lives.

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