A human liver was kept alive outside a human being and then transplanted into a recipient patient who required a new liver, researchers from Oxford University and King’s College Hospital reported. The scientists added that the procedure has been successfully performed on two patients who are currently recovering well.

Once in the device, the liver functions as it would inside the human body

the device would also keep new donated livers ‘viable’ for much longer

“These first clinical cases confirm that we can support human livers outside the body, keep them alive and functioning on our machine and then, hours later, successfully transplant them into a patient. The device is the very first completely automated liver perfusion device of its kind: the organ is perfused with oxygenated red blood cells at normal body temperature, just as it would be inside the body, and can for example be observed making bile, which makes it an extraordinary feat of engineering.

It was astounding to see an initially cold grey liver flushing with color once hooked up to our machine and performing as it would within the body. What was even more amazing was to see the same liver transplanted into a patient who is now walking around. Whilst for these two transplants we only needed to keep the livers alive for up to 10 hours, in other experiments we have shown we can preserve a functioning liver and monitor its function outside the body for periods up to 24 hours.”

The device would buy the surgeon extra time and widen the options for patients, many of whom would otherwise not survive as they wait for a suitable organ to become available.

“At present, organ transplantation depends upon cooling the organ to ice temperature to slow down its metabolism, but this does not stop it deteriorating and, if the organ is already damaged in some way, perhaps by being deprived of oxygen, then the combined effect can be disastrous. Many potential donor organs are declined as being unsuitable for this reason.

This new technique allows us to assess how well an organ is working before having to decide whether to commit a patient to the operation. So this technology promises to quality-assure organs which would otherwise be discarded. This would increase the number of transplants without increasing the risks. It will make a real difference to what happens to patients on the waiting list without requiring any change in current donation practices.

13,000 liver transplant procedures are performed annually. It may sound like an impressive number, but there are 30,000 patients each year waiting for a suitable liver. Many of them die whilst awaiting transplantation