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Artificial liver may keep organ donation candidates alive

April 15, 2009 7:49:41 AM PDT
Elizabeth Blaj knows what it's like to be close to death. "They didn't think I'd make it through the night," Blaj said.

There's help for failing kidneys and hearts -- but there's no fix for dying livers. More than 27-thousand people die every year from liver disease and fewer than six-thousand liver transplants are performed. Doctors are now testing an artificial liver that bridges that gap and gives patients another chance at survival.

For Blaj, time was running out.

"They told me, you know what, maybe two days is what we have to find you a liver," Blaj said.

A new artificial liver bought her the time she needed to find a donor.

For the past ten years, Elizabeth has been dealing with problems with her liver. An infection almost took her life.

"It had already shut down my kidneys. My liver had shut down and basically I had a heart attack. That was the pain in my back. They thought I was toast that very day," Blaj said.

That's when doctors turned to an artificial liver, or ELAD, to keep her alive. It works like a dialysis, cleaning toxins out of plasma.

"The assumption is that it will provide temporary liver support while either their liver gets better or as a bridge to a transplant," said Dr. Robert S. Brown, Jr., Frank Cardie Professor of Medicine and Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia.

Before the plasma is returned, it filters through cells in the ELAD taken from a liver tumor. They help in detoxifying, blood-clotting and metabolism.

"These liver cells can grow on plastic and can be easily stored and transported and they grow very, very dense," Brown said.

The ELAD system kept Elizabeth alive for five days -- enough time to find a donor liver.

"It bought me time. It bought me time. Five days was like an eternity," Blaj said. Now She's Living A Whole New Life.

"I have told people it's like living in a fog and having that fog lifted," she said.

A person's chances of dying on the waiting list for a donor liver are higher than the chances of dying on the artificial liver. Dr. Brown has kept patients on the machine for up to 10 days.


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