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Chuck Boetsch of Palm Harbor, Fla., was desperate for a new pair of lungs. A rare disease was causing the set he had carried for 72 years to harden and scar. He could barely breathe.
In November 2017, after 10 weeks on the waiting list, Boetsch got a call that a lung was available — but there was a catch. This lung had some potential problems, enough that other transplant centers didn't want it.
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But Boetsch's transplant team at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., had a plan. Before doing the transplant, team members would use a revolutionary technique to fully refurbish, repair and renovate the lung, just like a used car. By the time they transplanted it, they told Boetsch, it should be as good as new.
The technology is part of a promising new approach that has the potential to dramatically cut transplant waiting lists: Find a way to use the thousands of less-than-perfect organs that are literally thrown away every year because they aren't considered good enough.
As part of that effort, health officials are looking at loosening the criteria designating some organs as high risk to reflect that many of them are relatively safe. Surgeons, for instance, are safely transplanting kidneys and hearts infected with hepatitis C that previously would have been discarded. And in what is perhaps the most exciting development, transplant centers across the country are testing high-tech devices that “rejuvenate” lower-quality organs that don't meet traditional transplant criteria.
"Right now, only 1 out of every 5 donor lungs passes muster,” says pulmonologist Jack Leventhal, a member of Boetsch's transplant team and medical director of a lung restoration center in Florida expected to open this year. “By using more of them, we believe we can increase the number of transplants, dramatically cut the wait list and, most importantly, save lives.”
The innovations are especially relevant to patients who have a hard time qualifying for transplants because they are considered higher risk, often because they are too sick or too old.
Nearly 114,000 Americans are waiting for organs such as lungs, livers, kidneys and hearts, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Despite efforts to increase the donor pool, the demand for organs continues to far outstrip supply.
As a result, an average of 18 people die every day while waiting for an organ.