A drone transported a human kidney successfully over Las Vegas desert, which opens the door wide for the future of organ transportation.
Researchers of unmanned aviation solutions provider, MissionGO and the Nevada Donor Network, organ procurement organizations, announced that they had been successful in performing two test flights by transporting a human kidney and tissue by drones to Las Vegas.
The first flight transported research corneas from one hospital to another about 2½ miles away on September 17, 2020. On that very same day, a second flight delivered research kidneys 10 miles from an airport to a location outside a small town in the Las Vegas desert.
This was the longest organ delivery flight in drone history, surpassing the distance of the April, 2019 flight, when staff, which now is part of the MissionGO team, transported a kidney from the Living Legacy Foundation in west Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown.
Although the kidney that was transported to Las Vegas was not used for the sole purpose of research, scientists who took biopsies before and after the flight, concluded that there were no changes to the tissue and cell viability.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, organs which were usually transported via commercial aircraft have drastically reduced the number of flights available. Two examples are United Airlines and American Airlines, which have reduced the number of their September (2020) flights almost by 50%, and Southwest Airlines has cut flights by 25%.
This is extremely — deadly — serious because organs are discarded if there are no flights available to transport them before they become nonviable according to Dr. Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute and vice president of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
According to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, a kidney can survive outside the body for only 36 to 48 hours after it has been recovered. This means the U.S. discards thousands of donated kidneys each year as patients die while patiently and desperately waiting. Dr. Cooper, who is also on the National Kidney Foundation board of directors, emphasized this dilemma when he said: “You can think about (drones) being pretty revolutionary in breaking down one of the obstacles to increasing the number of organs utilized and decreasing discards.”*
A study published in August, 2019, in the Journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that the U.S. discards about 3,500 kidneys a year. At the same time, almost 100,000 Americans are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and about 12 people die each day, according to the National Kidney Foundation.*
In addition, drones also could decrease the transportation time. This time is also critical since it shortens the time an organ is outside the body and improves chances of function after the transplant operation. Such a decrease in time of transportation is especially relevant in metropolitan areas where congested traffic can make the difference between life and death.
Dr. Cooper also points out that unmanned aircraft can save not only the lives of organ recipients, but also surgeons and those accompanying them, who have died in plane or helicopter crashes on their way to retrieve organs. A tragic example is that of a transplant team of six University of Michigan Health System employees who died in 2007 after their jet crashed into Lake Michigan.
Ryan Henderson, lead UAS pilot for MissionGO, said that the recent Las Vegas test drone could hold only about 22 pounds, which limited the amount of ice the team would normally pack for a commercial flight. Therefore, Henderson pointed out that researchers are exploring larger aircraft to transport heavier cargo so they can include more ice, multiple organs, and medical devices for organ preservation.
According to the General Manager of MediGO, Chetan Paydenkar, the company is also working to include GPS software that monitors the quality of the trip and the organ from the hospital’s operating room to the transplant center.
Joe Ferreira, CEO and President of the Nevada Donor Network, points out that though he is optimistic the technology could be the future of organ transportation, hundreds of flights are still needed to test the reliability and safety of drone delivery. He put it:
“Our ecosystem is a complex one. … There’s a number of things you have to prove to be able to ensure that it’s safe, effective and reliable. We’re in the beginning stages of providing this mode of transport on behalf of the heroic donors and their courageous families.”*
Anthony Pucciarella, MissionGO president, spoke for all of us when he said, “These flights are an exciting step forward.”
This “step forward” is in reality — a giant leap — in its application because it opens the door for the future of organ transportation, a field that has global consequences — saving thousands — of lives.