New Heart Transplant Method Could Boost Donor Pool By 30%: Study

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June 9, 2023 -- A recently developed way to perform heart transplants works as well as the traditional method and,  if widely embraced,  could greatly increase the number of hearts available for transplant, doctors at Duke University say.

The study team looked at 180 heart transplants conducted at numerous hospitals, half involving hearts from brain-dead donors – the traditional method – and half involving hearts from people who had circulatory deaths. Circulatory death occurs when all circulatory and respiratory functions stop.

Six months later, the survival rate was about the same – 94% for recipients of the circulatory death donations and 90% for the brain-death donations. The newer method was “not inferior” to the standard method, concluded the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine

If the practice of using hearts donated after circulatory death (DCD) became widespread, the number of hearts available for transplant could increase by 30%, Duke doctors said, according to The Associated Press

“Honestly if we could snap our fingers and just get people to use this, I think it probably would go up even more than that,” said transplant surgeon Jacob Schroder, MD, of Duke University School of Medicine, who led the research. “This really should be standard of care.”

Most heart transplants occur after brain death, with the body left on a ventilator to keep the heart working until it’s harvested. Donations after circulatory death have been widely used for transplanting other organs like kidneys and livers but much less so for the more fragile heart, the  AP reported. 

Now doctors can remove those hearts and “reanimate” them on a machine that pumps in blood and nutrients, leaving the hearts in working condition before transplant, the outlet reported. 

Duke doctors pioneered the first DCD heart transplants in the United in 2019. The AP, citing the United Network for Organ Sharing, said there were 343 DCD heart transplants in the U.S. last year and 227 so far this year.