'Heart in a box': Northwestern surgeons successfully transplant heart after it stopped beating

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Karen Jordan Image
Wednesday, November 2, 2022
Chicago surgeons perform heart transplant after it stopped beating
Using "heart in a box" technology, surgeons at Northwestern Medicine have successfully transplanted a heart after it stopped beating.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For the first time in Illinois, surgeons at Northwestern Medicine's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute have successfully transplanted a heart after it stopped beating.

"As soon as the heart stops beating, tissue damage starts to occur in the muscle of the heart," said Dr. Duc Thinh Pham, Northwestern Medicine. "And with each subsequent minute, the heart becomes less and less viable for transplantation."

Dr. Pham was part of a team of surgeons who performed the landmark procedure two weeks ago. The surgery was a success with the patient getting stronger every day.

Traditionally, transplants use hearts from organ donors who have been declared brain dead. The game-changer is technology the doctors nicknamed "heart in a box." If a patient dies from natural causes, it resuscitates a stopped heart by keeping it pumping outside of the body until it can be transplanted.

"The alternative to this technology is the simple, old-fashioned cooler," said Dr. Benjamin Bryner, Northwestern Medicine. "But placing a donor heart on ice only preserves the heart for a few hours and that limits the ratio of where we can travel to recover a heart for transplant."

Currently, the number of people waiting for transplants far outweighs the number of donor hearts available.

"In the last 50 years that we've been doing transplantation, we've just had a supply/demand mismatch," said Dr. Jane Wilcox, Northwestern Medicine. "That's our biggest challenge we've had."

In 2021, there were more than 7,000 patients on the heart transplant list in the United States. However, only 3,500 heart transplants were performed in the same period due to the scarcity of available donor hearts.

This technology could potentially increase the number of transplants in the US by 20 to 30%.

While doctors at Northwestern Medicine say heart donations after circulatory death could serve more patients, they say the need for more people to become organ donors keeps growing every day.